A selection of articles by the undeservably obscure Jack Common, a Geordie who wrote both novels and essays on various aspects of culture and class relations. His friend George Orwell had written of Common: "he is of proletarian origin, and much more than most writers of this kind he preserves his proletarian viewpoint".
A fascinating writer, his analysis of the emerging mass consumerism of the 1930s & 40s seems to closely anticipate the concept of the 'society of the spectacle' later developed by the situationists.
From the endangered phoenix.com website; http://www.endangeredphoenix.com/
Jack Common was born in 1903 in Heaton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, close to the engine sheds where his railwayman father worked. Life as a boy of the streets involved fighting and petty crime, but there was also the influence of an eccentric uncle who stimulated his interest in the written word and a benevolent teacher who encouraged his writing. His childhood is described in the two autobiographical novels he wrote in the Fifties - Kiddar's Luck and The Ampersand. They are unique in the immense and delicate detail they contain on the nature of working class life. He writes of the freedom Kiddar experienced in the streets: ' The street was my second home. Though for some time mainly passive among its activities I had the freedom of it by right and could come into its full heritage whenever I was able.' ... It was there that the boy acquired 'The one faculty with which school infallibly endures its pupils, that of being bored. It is very important, of course, that every child should, in the course of time, become fitted with this negative capability. If they didn't have it, they'd never put up with the jobs they are going to get, most of them, on leaving school. Boredom or the ability to endure it, is the hub on which the whole universe of work turns.' And when it came to work, Kiddar wrote: 'With reference to your advertisement in today's North Mail, I beg to apply for the post. I am fourteen years of age, strong, healthy, bright, punctual, clean and willing. My parents are working-class, my environment is working-class, and with your kind assistance I feel qualified to become working-class myself.' "
He attended Skerry's College in Newcastle and gained some secretarial skills. Entering the labour market during the 1st World War, "because labour was scarce, I got into a law office and became confidential clerk to a drunken solicitor". From there he was sacked ("as a scapegoat"), spent three years on the dole ("the idleness was invaluable") which allowed him to develop his interests. The Royal Arcade, then the meeting place of Newcastle's socialists, drew him, as did the People's Theatre Group, which still retained some traces of the socialism which had inspired it.
Confronted with the Means Test, in 1928 Common left for London. Compared with the North East, unemployment was comparatively low, and Common quickly found a job as a mechanic in an automatic machine company. But factory discipline and authority was much the same as on Tyneside - as a result he was soon "thrown out for practicing an ingenious method of simplifying the job".
By that time, though, he had developed his interest in writing, and: "an essay I'd written attracted the notice of Middleton Murray, editor of The Adelphi. He took me on as circulation man for them. In a year I became assistant-editor, and up to the end of 1936 was acting editor. At the same time I was on the editorial board of New Britain." Common's work also appeared in Tribune, New Statesman, Eleventh Hour, the Manchester Guardian and others.
During this period he began his friendship with Eric Blair, alias George Orwell. He recorded his intense disappointment on first meeting Orwell: he had expected a rebel, a tramp. Orwell looked the part alright: "But he rose to acknowledge the introduction and shake hands. Manners showed through. A sheep in wolf's clothing, I thought, taking in his height and stance, accent and cool built-in superiority, the public school presence".
One December Orwell decided to write an essay on "Christmas in Prison". He planned to write an account from the inside, and this - of course - required an arrest. He talked with Common about a scheme to light a bonfire in Trafalgar Square. He didn't get a sympathetic hearing. Common remembers how "I firmly held that if you were going to jail you might as well have something for it. My advice was 'take to theft; a bonfire simply suggests something undergraduate-like'".
For a man to whom beer and pub life were important, it is significant that Common wrote of Orwell "no pub ever knew my friend as 'Eric' let alone 'George.'" The landlord automatically called Orwell 'sir.'" But the two men remained friends until Orwell's death in 1950.
Orwell had written of Common: "he is of proletarian origin, and much more than most writers of this kind he preserves his proletarian viewpoint". This viewpoint was developed by Common with a clear critical intelligence, in a variety of reviews, essays and satirical pieces. "He was", as another reviewer put it, "a knowing bird, [whose] life appears to be spent with his head on one side forever questioning the quaint ways of the bourgeois, whilst he chuckles down his throat at their dependence upon the proletarians". In this 'knowingness', however, there is no hint of smugness or self-satisfaction. The perspective he offered was not one of class prejudice or 'workerism' (he had little time for middle class socialists who were determined - in dress, manner and speech - to outdo the workers on their own terms!) His concern was with a humanistic analysis of capitalist society. One which saw the proletariat to lie at the heart of an immense economic and social crisis which affected all classes.
Appreciated in this way, Common's writings in the 1930's take on a uniqueness. They represent an attempt to articulate a political philosophy which is rooted in the day to day experience of working class people. It is no accident that their criticism became most severe when directed upon socialist organisations which, while claiming to organise and speak for working class people, hector them for their apathy and ignorance. Such people, thought Common, had 'got the bird and don't know it'. They didn't know it because socialist theory in large part saw 'the proletariat' as a 'negative force': a bludgeon to smash capitalism and dig the grave of the capitalist class. For Common it needed to offer much more....
In his articles ('practice sprints' he called them) in the first few years of the 1930's, Common pointed to aspects of working class experience which could be developed into a powerful force for the transformation of society. He also pointed to the dramatic changes that were taking place to the class structure of capitalism as it shifted (in the middle of slump) towards mass production and mass consumption."
In 1938 Seven Shifts appeared - essays on working class life written by seven workers, inspired and edited by Common. The essay by his friend Tommy McCulloch is particularly good, recalling the General Strike and anticipating the "next time." In the same year The Freedom of the Streets was published, a collection of excellent essays: but then a dispute led to him falling out with his publishers.
The years of World War Two saw Common roped in to make propaganda films, but they ended up as rather untypical ones. In North East Corner we see the Tyne shipyards busy with war production after the depression years; the men have to be coaxed back to the yards and are all too aware they'll probably be unwanted again after the war.
"During the 1940's Common produced a variety of film scripts and reviews. It was a job but it didn't pay. By 1950 he was a labourer during the day, a film writer by night. But at weekends he was writing Kiddar's Luck, published in 1951 to the surprise of many who knew him. Vivid recollections of infancy and childhood adventures are coloured by his adult socialism....
The Ampersand followed in 1954, taking the story into adolescence and the world of work. It has the same balance of comedy, petty crime and sheer "luck" we find in the first volume. Common's "luck" returned with a vengeance, and his publishers, Turnstile Press, went broke.
Plans in 1960 to publish a later work, In Whitest Britain, collapsed. During this time Common had worked as a caretaker at a stately home, and had served as the brow for Marx's tomb at Highgate. He had suffered evictions and his usual poverty. He died in Newport Pagnell in 1968.
Among his unpublished work there is a mass of poetry, essays and plays; there is a complete novel, Esther, and five chapters of an untitled unfinished novel set among the pre-war Newcastle socialists. If Jack Common is ever to get the recognition his work deserves, then, as he wrote in another context, "it is high time the luck of the Kiddars turned.""
[This biographical note has been compiled from two sources; the Introduction to Revolt Against an 'Age of Plenty', edited by Huw Benyon and Colin Hutchinson, Strongwords, 1980; and the Preface by Neil Murray to the 1988 People's Publication edition of Freedom of the Streets.]
Jack Common's Writings:
For Reactionaries Only
Talents In Touch
On The Cinema
Desire On The Street
The Great Proletarian Mystery
The Freedom Of The Street
One night last winter I stood watching a gypsy play with fire. He and half his tribe had just turned out of the pub, the men singing and step-dancing in their heavy boots, the women aloof hunching disapproval behind their shawls. Not more than twenty he was, a sturdy lad permanently dirty and unshaven but with a clear out-door look in his eyes which gave you the improbable idea that he would strip white enough, and a shock of hair pushing his cap away from his brow. He made his fire out of newspaper on the cobbles, keeping it between his boots. There was a fair amount of wind blowing, and if you or I had tried the job, it's ten to one we'd have wasted a few matches before we got the thing started and then lost the whole issue when a ground-wind snatched at the flaming paper. But this lad was a real fire-master. He tended the flames that curled back from his corduroyed legs with caressing movements of his hands, as though he was combing a horse's tail. The newspaper he kept bundled up under his jacket so that he could tear off a strip quickly with one hand, twist it, and add it to the blaze. When it was high enough he took out half-a-dozen kippers and laid them on, jammed together as they were. In far too short a time he was treating us all to torn portions of charred but mainly uncooked kipper - a friendly act if not brilliantly successful.
Probably we are particularly liable to be struck by such simple things now because we are bound to doubt whether the so-called civilised life is worth the sacrifices we have to make in order to maintain it. The temptation is to see in the curious grace of the gypsy's fire-drawing evidence of a way of living more whole than ours. In much the same way, a modern anthropologist is able to observe savage communities all the more sympathetically for having left his own people in a high state of war preparation; historians are led to take another look at the ages of barbarism; and artists find inspiration among "primitives" and negro handicrafts. This is reaction, of course; ours is a reactionary period. Well, let's make the best of it. At any rate, we are free for the moment of the collective conceit which puts ourselves on top of all history, right in the van of progress. Not so very long ago practically everyone you knew was a Progressive, and the debate concerned various ways of doing good amiably all round. You would get told off proper if you didn't admit that this was an age of plenty, or that you could have Socialism in our time, or that war could be abolished. Today it is impossible not to suspect your best friend of being a reactionary, and the man who has not been accused of Fascism isn't on the intellectual map at all. What has happened to the Progressives then? I suspect that they got marched over and left behind, so that they are stuck in a last ditch somewhere, dieharding in the defence of democracy while we reactionaries quarrel about how far back we are going. And the way to get rid of the reactionaries is similar. Why go back to the middle ages with Hitler when the lovely stone age nights are calling you?
From a "savage" point of view we own terrific collective powers but are ourselves deficient in all the natural graces. In singing, dancing, drawing, poetry-making, speaking, and love-making we are pretty deplorable judged by uncivilised standards. We seem to have got caught up in a kind of madly-extreme democracy, so that we bank all on a tremendous queen-bee of a Beethoven and have millions who can't sing at all; or having raised a Shakespeare, from thence on we content ourselves with smoking-room limericks and advertising slogans. What happens is that you have first a simple human pleasure which all join in, then it becomes worked on and specialised into a high art with a large audience delegating their interest to a few skilled performers, and the last stage occurs when the audience no longer keep alive the rhythms in themselves and so do not recognise the skilled delegate when he appears. Thus, if you want to exhaust yourself any time, you cannot do better than try to explain to the ordinary man what you see in chamber music. There is an envoi to this process: comes a time when the delegates themselves get the wind up at the lack of backing they receive and try to re-shape themselves in accordance with the alleged demands of popular taste. Caesar gives circuses.
Have the rank and file of civilisation really become brutish, then? No savage is going to believe that. Periods of high civilisation are few and very brief, all about and around them the unadulterated and uncollectivised men are dancing and singing and making a wonder out of words. We have these free rhythms in us all right, but inhibited. So far, civilisations have been clumsy contrivances for swiftly capitalising the collective human strength for the endowment of a few individuals. Their social training has been a sort of ferreting; stopping-up all the outlets of expression save one, so as to get a concentrated power. Thus it follows that the spread of education to all and sundry does not result in a general increase in the arts of expression. Whatever the intention, the technique is inhibitory. It says, in effect, you shall not make verse or music unless you are prepared to go forth and specialise. The arts now become too difficult for the ordinary man, and few men believe they are capable of them, though as users of tools they often fall easily enough into the rhythm of gesture which is the germ of all arts.
Well, now that this civilisation-by-proxy swindle is likely to blow itself up, and we are all of us in a reactionary funk about it, there are two forms of reaction open to us. One is to tighten up the discipline and increase the inhibitions, emphasise the inner tension in actual drills and military formations, forbid even the free art of representative minority and their thought; the other to conduct our own relaxation before the discipline breaks, give back to the ordinary man the power which he delegated to minorities, and so build a dark age of our own instead of being flung headlong into it in the Roman fashion. The great virtue of a dark age is that it discovers the value of exceedingly simple things: of the love between man and wife, for instance; of the good in working a piece of land; of the rare sympathy that springs up in small and poor communities. In a dark age the people begin to make songs of their own, and dances; their speech becomes deintellectualised, so that word-formations accumulate without any one planning them by rule, and they therefore have a touch of magic in them. We'd enjoy a dark age fine, if it wasn't that they've got a bad name because of the poverty, plague, and social anarchy that they are generally marred with. That may have been because they were accidental, not specially wished-for like ours.
To us the new age opens as an age of exploration. We start on the assumption that all of us are libelled in our collective picture. The sum of our abilities and potentialities, as added up in the accounts of nation, republic, and empire, is quite incorrect. But even if our collectivity represented us as we are, that still leaves out what can be. You know very well that you are much better than you've ever had the chance of being. So am I. So is my mate. Whenever I do happen to exercise a new ability, I find myself speculating on how many potentialities there may be in me that lie rotting. The fact is, nobody knows how good they are. For one freedom, we develop a hundred fears, since society likes a man to have but one face, so that he can be readily catalogued and counted on. Even my gyppo boy, for all his fine unconscious fire-love, is a tongue-tied hobble-dehoy half his time.
I believe that mere ordinary man is an Eldorado of infinite potentiality, and that the work of endowed individuals is no more than outcrop gold indicating the quality of the greater mine. Moreover, had that dogma been generally believed, I think we should not have daunted the majority by efforts to lift them up or add to their natural capacities. No man can add a cubit to his stature; and no man needs to. It is enough to free the province of your manhood, that is, to unlearn the fears and inhibitions by which you are lessened. The dark age technique of unlearning is what is needed, and it is not such a strange thing as it seems. We have an acquisitive view of learning as of a thing you add to the personality, this being the opinion proper to an acquisitive society. Yet when you learn to swim you are really escaping from doubt and awkwardness into an innate swimming rhythm which everybody possesses, rather marvellously, whether they use it or not. And queerer than that, there is the case of the recently developed art of cycling. When I took it up, the man who showed me how pointed out that it wasn't a question of learning to ride, what you had to do was to unlearn the inability to ride. He was perfectly right. It is all there if you can get it.
So with the arts and graces which during the stress of a high civilisation are slurred over or made remote and rare. We can unlearn the social self-consciousness which distorts the exercise of the natural rhythms in its effort to compete with the hardy specialist in them. In the end we shall come into our birthright again, and damn those professors of progress who call only the ages of mass-slavery and isolated genius, golden.
[Abbreviated from "For Reactionaries Only", originally published in The Adelphi, vol. XV, January 1939. As reprinted in Revolt Against an ‘Age of Plenty’, edited by Huw Beynon and Colin Hutchinson, Strongwords, Newcastle, 1980.]
We do not know – how often one has to say that. We used to be so complacent about the ever–widening circle of things known. And, of course, about the physical universe we do know a great deal indeed. Also we understand a tremendous lot about the mechanics of maintaining a herd of men in close proximity. In fact, wherever there is a clear conjunction of predictable material law we are on to it like a shot. This remarkable facility received its freedom when the dark experiences of the early Christians convinced them that man was a spiritual being despite all; for that discovery pushed the material world at arm’s length. It could then be explored. The idealising of a repressed humanity into something spiritual resulted in a tremendous gain of materialist knowledge. To the Christian with God inside him the material world is always before his eyes. So even the most saintly philosophers of the church seem to their oriental confreres inescapably gross. That god-in-man took away divinity from the sun and earth, which then became merely commensurable objects. We know things about them which the ancients never knew. Perhaps we know too much – at any rate, our detailed and over-proved observation begins to seem rather weary. It needs to be redeemed in some second innocence. The heavenly bodies obey mechanical laws, true. And we, in the decadences of Christianity, are especially sharp to detect mechanical law. We have to be, for our godliness is a real deux ex machina, maintained or won by the skilful delegation of every brutal function to mindless contrivances that are capable of toil without suffering. That is our latest peak of experience. From it you can barely see another towering, and the first of that new vista will be in how it affects humanity. Naturally: you must fit man into your cosmogony first.
The masses are not Christian now, any more than they were pagan in the year 60 B.C. They are nothing, nothing official. And that is only to say that their precise spiritual condition has not been reported. Thus, if a fellow goes to meet his Maker either through the normal course of the hospital or by joining the army, and honestly answers “None” when they ask what his religion is, down he goes as Church of England. The curious result is that that Church has more atheists among its official flock than any other, not even excepting the Church of Rome, which has always been a favourite atheistical retreat for folks clever enough to enjoy its ritual. Yet it would not be quite fair to describe every man who hasn’t a religion as an atheist, just as you wouldn’t call everybody with no money in the bank communist. Those terms don’t come along till later, when the poor man recognises what he’s a-doing of, and is prepared to stand up for his practice against all who have other ways of wangling along. So, the present position is that there does not exist a reasonably revelatory description of the quiet communion in which the great world of common men actually lives. Well, then, the things to consider are, how did we ever get such notices before, and why have they stopped coming.
The original process is something like this. As any body of men begin to live together in larger and more complex systems of relationships, some of them fail to fit in easily. They are to some extent cut off from the natural communism of their fellows. Some in their isolation become ego-conscious; they slave to perfect their talents so as to be top-dogs and thus escape the vagrancy which otherwise would be their fate. Some again endure that vagrancy but are compensated in their bad luck in being cut off from the normal activities by developing a sudden consciousness of what the whole business is about. The lame man who cannot hunt draws pictures of hunting; the weak-bodied and unfit for war spins his tales of heroes more glorious than his colleagues whom he dare not fight. But the simplest example of this in our time is sex. Odd word for it! Complicated societies like ours have to practically forbid their members from entering into full sexual life until they have gone a good way towards mastering the economic ropes. Many are able to acquiesce quietly in the postponement. But for some the denial brings a flare of heightened consciousness which, when it is spread about, is communicated to all, so that in our own streets you’ll see this curious blinkering and intense seeing occurring simultaneously, as some lass with a nice leg on her passes men preoccupied with business and men unnaturally alert for inflammation – the same men in alternating moods. That’s the low of it. Yet the barring out provides some marvellously fine insights, too. Sometimes the passion, which might easily have spent itself in dull coupling, is distilled into a sweetness which irradiates a whole personality. The little stark bit of chastity – that is the deep of the well, and people who haven’t it are somehow glossy and over-blown. Their attraction shocks like the electric eel at first touch, but who would want to touch again?
Besides this general process, there is the particular one by which someone here and there gathers in himself a queer kind of consciousness of the notions playing on his fellows. The case of the artist and the philosopher is a hard one to unravel. We are over-dazzled at the splendour and the rarity of the achievement and generally content to murmur “genius” and pass on to something easier. It’s sure a wonder how a whole world of sensation is suddenly focussed in the reflector of one imagination and thrown far and near into many minds. Only one Beethoven and one Shakespeare and one Jesus - the marvel it is. Now in general, when a thing appears mystical and miraculous, it means that here we have something that has been left to nature. We never planned to have Shakespeares and Beethovens. Many of them would be an embarrassment to our narrow day of toil, and anyhow we don’t know how to grow them. Yet they answer some necessity. Somewhere in the dark and nettled tensions of human life there comes about a thrust which our institutions cannot take. The force bursts through to produce something which looks alien and odd to the potato-ranks of our planning, or the carnations we grow for swank; it shoots up in a singular and impossible luxuriance. We never planted that one, and we know well that the way the ground is dunged and dug there’ll not be another like it for a long time. So give it a name and pass on – genius.
All the same we are prepared to stand a fair amount of consciousness of a less intense sort, something that can be controlled and handled and made to yield only enough light to enable us to get on with the job in hand. During all periods of high civilisation this consciousness is fairly widely taught; it becomes a usual social asset; and there comes to be a body of people who can pretty easily write a book, paint a picture, cut holes in somebody’s belly, manage a factory, or argue a case in a law court – it’s very nearly a matter of indifference which shape their consciousness takes. Such a versatile and shallow cultivation it is. Perhaps one or two of them are really much better than that, men who might have had “genius” (the silly word) were it not that it was too easy for them to win some sort of knowledge. These great leaders just fallen short are surrounded by thousands of people for whom consciousness is a mere social privilege and convenience. They derive licence from the intellectually arrogant leader, as he from them. They surround him with a wall of light. So that his search for knowledge of the simple human stuff is a continual discovery of them. We did not dare ask for a “genius” – I mean ask with the full responsibility of getting someone who would upset all our comfortable world with his notions – and so we are limited in what we know to the short-range observation of these men of brief roots.
Now complex people should associate with very simple folk. And the association is not real unless the complex man feels vividly his essential human inferiority to the good unconverted stuff of the simple man. At present he cannot get into that position at all: he is a “gentleman”, thus forever out of touch, or he is crippled in his powers by uncongenial work and lack of social recognition. So consciousness must feed on consciousness until it soon burns out. And, therefore, the art, philosophy and leadership of our day is brittle, flashy stuff, over-intellectual or too consciously under-intellectual. It reports on what is already reported in a tiny trickle of marginal commentary. Suppose you leave out of your music everything but pure rhythm; or if you leave out of sculpture everything but pure form, the shape itself; suppose you leave out of writing everything but the bare word-sound – these are the whittlings that go on now. Why, the dear old bourgeois novel turns up every week freshly maltreated; and the nature-poetry of that too-practical epoch comes along regular as rain, twisted in syntax and with some functional scenery in, but still saying nothing about man and man that has not already been put in prose. These repetitions and dissections show all too clearly that there is no right relation between the conscious and unconscious parts of society. They are divided, hostile and alien. The sap cannot flow between them. Therefore, leviathan remains unlighted while the illuminants twinkle for themselves like glow-worms on a Big Five bankside.
Our artists at least are sensible of the deprivation this is. They are weary of willing to paint, or of copying the tradition. They want to experience some deep compulsive mandate which will overwhelm their irritating awareness of what they are doing. So they turn to the unconscious. That instinct is sound – if they did but know the way. Yet the works of surrealism, confessed or not, never climb out of a confused experimentalism. Probably what is wrong is that they to express a personal unconscious – “my unconsciousness” one of them said the other day with a quaint and unpardonable possessiveness. They desire the trance of art, and know at any rate what is missing in nearly all contemporary work, but in that trance they’ll be themselves still; they’ll serve their own unconscious, nobody else’s. They put their shirt on nightmare as a dark horse, but they take care to hang on to the cuff-links. That is the disease of our day all right, the same that makes the pacifist hang on to his dividends while refusing the crude and final stroke of war.
It was different in Shakespeare’s time. Notice how his unconscious is so remarkably like everyone else’s that every born fool with a B. Litt. to his name thinks he has a special affinity to Shakespeare and can shed new light on the plays. Even if you regard the characters there as projections of the author, then all you can say is that he must have ardently wanted his world to be just goodly human. His folk are not geniuses, not astoundingly intricate or rare; there is nothing they do or say (content, that is, not the perfection of their speech) which is not done or said in any back-street. Hence, though literary men are fascinated by the amazing technical dexterity of his writing, ordinary simple folk still feel perfectly well at home in his world. He probably never was at home in theirs, but he wanted to be – that’s it. Here you have a man natively of exceptional talent, who might have graced the Court or the government, living almost like a vagrant, or like a man disinherited and teased by contact with all he might have had, extremely sensitive to all the relationships yet failing in marriage, and again in extra-marital and extra-sexual love. The makings of a fine man, you might have said, had you known him in the flesh, only nothing came to a proper focus for him except in the imaginative crystal of his writing, and there perfectly. It is the standard situation of men of fine consciousness.
You can be certain that his perfection, his wonderful haleness, was to some extent the gift of his fortunate time. There were ready around him certain sympathies which he could naturally rely on, but which now need a lot of looking for. What a business that search can be you may see something of in the career of D.H. Lawrence. Natively Lawrence had an imaginative insight of the same order, though not the same magnitude as Shakespeare’s. Yes, but how often is it free? At first, perhaps, he had a certain naïve confidence of addressing the world, but it isn’t long before an irritated uncertainty of whether any listen or not begins to intrude into everything he does. His natural audience, his natural inspiration, should have been the Nottingham miners. He is certain – why, is interesting – that they would never read his books. The people who will, bourgeois women and the university youth, are no good to him. He exists in a sort of culture vacuum, like a fly on a bubble riding down the stream. Out of his lonely lack of community, he is always much over-valuing the importance of his personal relations with friends, and then in reaction theoretically damning them. His own personality he over-values. He is the only child not allowed to go out and play. The result is that the ordinary reticences and self-discipline which membership of any community naturally brings do not exist for him. He’ll record the littlest moods of exasperation or vanity; even the sort of squib one might let off at the drinking- table must go down seriously as a poem or something. And every now and then his stories will dwindle into dramatisations of himself and his friends, a kind of amazing diary. His personality is fully-licensed. He and we get so sick of it – for, of course, a writer’s personality is the last thing that anyone should write about – that it’s a relief to everybody when his fine sympathy with the non-human world gets the uppermost. He’s top of the world so long as there’s no people in it.
Lawrence was too good to acquiesce in that banishment. His artist’s need of deep contact with primarily innocent people drove him to a wild and extravagant exploration of the external proletariat and the coolie-fragments of past civilisations. But he’d have done better to have stayed at home. The original statement of the problem was a cleaner one. Why was he not in full acceptance of the Notts. miners? That was the thing. All the differences of race and colour among the proletariat abroad merely obscured the way for him. Sad. It is such a simple need to have, that of a constant good communion between the bright nervelet that the intellectual is and the dark unaware life of the commonality. It would happen easily but that in the odd contrivances by which we keep up a part-civilisation any polarity may be strangled.
We have been talking of exceptional cases, of course. The lesser men of consciousness never feel their present deprivation with anything like the same force. Nor do they need to be in such exquisite fine touch with folk as do these adventurers in the rare imaginative realm. Still, they too, every time they look up from the thinning trickle of their work, meet the great blank wall of mass- humanity. That seems inimical to them. The poor old mass-monster, how he mocks their tea-cup civilisation and their cult of the person! Well, give it up then. It has become purely self-regarding anyway, the clever studying the clever. We know to weariness all that that kind think, say and do. The world has been their Lido long enough; the sun must be sick of this nakedness. And they must be. They are. Yet there is always in front of us this tremendous mass-humanity, still unlocked. Think of the potentiality there. Why, damn it, we made Athens and Rome, Paris and London, while calling on but one man in a hundred to live a full manhood – what shall we do now, when the whole species pauses before the possibility of ascension. All but a tiny fraction of the people now breathing have been living under a belittling and inhibiting notion of themselves as unfit for anything but toil. It had a long life that notion, for generally it was justified by our inability to fight necessity without it. It went unquestioned, therefore, except for rare grumbles or Messianic flashes of inspiration. But now people actually cling to it – a sign that it is going. The eagerness with which all sorts of men disown an interest in anything highbrow, as though they were under suspicion; the general habit in nearly all circles that you’re just an ordinary bloke that likes sport and jazz and doesn’t bother his head about politics – this is how the deep pressure of some intimations of immortality first are felt. The proletariat clings to the gutter, and desperately shoos away destiny with an Edgar Wallace or a Littlewood’s coupon. The middle-classes have to join in, of course, with a sort of Toc H good fellowship. Meanwhile the realists of the high bourgeoisie arm themselves against the day when the man-in-the-street goes highbrow and asks for his heritage.
We’re going to see some fun, we are. And we can’t practice seeing too soon. Why, if our intellectuals were capable of half the humility and self-suppressing wonder before the spectacle of plain humanity with the sun rising on it that they have shown for the pretties of Nature, we should have made our fag-lighter work and found out where we are by now. It is harder to admire man than nature. That’s seditious, for a start; it costs you the total loss of your misterhood, and seriously threatens your prospects of owning wage-slaves and becoming civilised. Oddly enough, though, most of the poets are getting prepared to pay that penalty. You and I will have to follow them – all in good time.
You see, the present arrangements are so damn ridiculous. The proper study of mankind is man, but the moment any of us shows a bit of useful social awareness or insight, we at once make a gentleman of him, thus segregating him from his subject- matter and compelling him to work by memory all the rest of his life. Strictly speaking there is no allowance made among us for the intellectual in his own right. He is accidental. One who makes his money in a queer way, but does, thank God, remain a gentleman. It means in practice that he’s expected to do no more than picture the ruling class to itself. And now the ruling class doesn’t want pictures of itself, so he might as well be bundled out of the country as a Jew or something equally unsporting. It’s hard lines on the intellectuals. For they are made to seem snobs by the mere organisation the country has, and there’s nothing more absurd to himself and others than a writer-painter-scientist shoved into snobbery. To be denied living contact with nearly all your fellow-citizens and kept viciously circling in the coteries of a class, while at the same time trying to do good work – by God, let no man envy the present-day intellectual. No wonder the stuff they raise is brittle and short-stemmed, little hard dottles of poetry, incredibly skeletonised pictures, philosophy vapour-thin despite the many layers of its tissues. They lack renewal, these talents out of touch. They want manuring with some of the good rough stuff of inarticulate man.
That will happen all right, never fear. Each year sees almost all of us forced nearer to the negative consanguinity of mass. We don’t like it; we don’t even want to believe that it is so. We all hunch cold shoulders against it. But wait. Already there are people who are beginning to exploit this new helplessness, and to rule us as though we were something sub-human. It is amazing to watch how in a few short years the ordinary impotence of the working-class against its bosses has extended to whole sections of the bourgeoisie. They still enjoy a relatively high standard of living, but their influence on the government of the country rapidly wanes. We come to the day of the unscrupulous and unsanctioned ruler. And our defence against him is to proclaim the community we are in. Once we know we are in it and feel it vividly, we’d be invincible. But we are not sure yet; we can only recognise it as a shadow on us, which can be sketchily declared in popular fronts and alliances against something. Things often begin sketchily, but wait till we proclaim our unity for something positive, for the triumphant declaration of the good-neighbourliness of all. Then under-dogdom will see its day come up. For the first time the whole man will walk upright in the sun, and his story will not then be concerned with the dismal account of whole populations mutilated of their manhood in the cause of some brief and uncertain part-splendour which so far has been all his tale.
That’s all for the present, hoping it finds you as it leaves me. I had intended to conclude with a table of dogmas. For, as this book cannot aim at proving anything, proof being possible only when all parties are using the same dialectic and are agreed about their main hypothesis, it seemed only fair to put down flat what I think are trumps, so to speak. But if I did that, folks might think I had an original set all to myself. Actually the kind of intimations I’ve been dealing in are common property among many, many people who have greater authority than I to speak of them. When they are codified it must be by collective counsel, a general squaring-up of common experiences. To do it any other way would be to commit an act of isolation, perhaps, from the others. One has to be careful of that, even in small matters.
No conclusions, then. You can work them out for yourself, and it’s odds on you’ll get as least as good an answer as I should. The things I’ve been talking about hit you as hard as they do me, mate, and that’s a fact. I leave it to you, then – all the best.
Originally published as the last chapter of Jack Common's "Freedom of the Streets"; Martin Secker and Warburg, 1938. Republished by People's Publications, 1988.]
The great advantage which the cinema has over the other arts is that it is so realistic. Unjaded and not over refined palates always ask realism from an art, and it is true that all arts while they are vicarious do offer just that quality.
It is the audience who makes the art, however. What an audience! Whoever wants to look the twentieth century in the face cannot do better than stand behind the screen in a big cinema…
The audience of the music hall are bright, consciously convivial, aware of their neighbours, and taking their enjoyment in company. The music-hall spreads an invisible festive board. But in the cinema it is a ghostly bed which awaits you. There the audience is as disunited and dim as the guests of an opium den. All those parted lips and staring eyes express no convivial enjoyment, they are lulled out of life, journeying along the moonlit paths of dreamland.
[Abbreviated from "Behind the Screen", (The Sweeper Up), in The Adelphi vol. VIII, December 1933. As reprinted in Revolt Against an 'Age of Plenty', op.cit.]
But what we have to see, if we're to see anything at all, is that life itself, the common life of the streets and cinemas, is miserably circumscribed. The bourgeois keeps himself to himself and prospers exceedingly. That was the theory. Its result is that outside this office at the present moment, there is a wide street full of people keeping themselves to themselves, drifting by the shops in ones and twos and threes, indifferent to each other, little knotted creatures like small fists closed about their selves and denying their common humanity.
So many people marry, desperately, as a way of getting in touch with one fellow creature at any rate. Then they bungle that by their desperate insistent fumbling. Women should beware of the man who wants marriage. He will ask of them what they should not give. It's very bad to make the individual response of sex do duty for a social relation. That's why our women go about now so hard-faced, made up to look halfway between the screen vamp and the dressmaker's dummy. We put them in a purdah of cosmetics. For as we have no way of saluting them, except by flashing the sexual semaphore, they go endlessly about our streets numbed by a thousand impacts of sexual desire. They are prostitutes to the ineffectual gaze.
Obviously when you see a girl coming down the street, moving so delicately and rich with her own dim magnetism, you cannot walk past her like a cow by a hawthorn or a drayman by a bunch of violets. There should be a flare of recognition, a warm and steady response - it should not be sex only, especially not aware sex. But there's nothing else handy. We bare our desire - not meaning that, but as substitute - and she shields herself from the falsity. The cold glance of desire meets the cold defence, concupiscence meets cosmetic and the recognition of a precious relationship is slain. Some years of that experience and you can go about the town ungreeting, casehardened, dried-up through running on your batteries.
[Abbreviated from "Apology For Playing Hell", (The Sweeper Up), The Adelphi vol. IX February 1935. As reprinted in Revolt Against an 'Age of Plenty', op. cit.]
“Proletariat” began as an unpleasant word which reminded one half of society of its social sins, and the other of its social servitude. It has now become like one of those bothersome theological phrases: it means different things in every mouth that uses it, and wherever two citizens meet to baffle one another this word jigs in and out of the argument carrying confusion into every contention. It is a boss word, sure enough, being itself masterless. Yet, after all, socialism bred it and we ought to insist on a little loyalty to the old stable. Nowadays when every fascist equips himself for a class-war foray with a bundle of borrowings from socialist literature, we ought to stick to our hosses.
The word derived from a necessity in Marx’s logic. According to that worthy, a society which had its dynamic in the unrestricted lust for possession must sooner or later produce a class of persons who were completely dispossessed. This logical category of the dispossessed, he called the proletariat. The term was at once appropriated to the working-class, who were sufficiently near complete dispossession, God knows. Now, it might be used even more accurately of the unemployed. Wherever it is used, however, it must mean that class which is excluded from all the major benefits of the social system under which it lives. In socialist theory it is this class, the excluded, the dispossessed, which is the lever of change, the carrier of destiny, the doom of present things. Naturally, we are all of us most unwilling to believe it.
The difficulty is about equal whether you try to persuade a dispossessed man to overcome his feeling of inferiority and choose himself for one of destiny’s agents, or whether you try to overcome the middle-class man’s snobbery and get him to throw in his lot with a class that has never achieved anything except toil. They have not faith, neither of them. Here is this paradox: progress, all the fine things civilisation has been promising itself and hasn’t got yet, must come from the weak, the ignorant, the powerless. Can you believe it? It is enough to make a man go fascist to think about it. Only, of course, you then get impaled on an equally different paradox: that you can make a revolution without turning the wheel, that you can keep the profits while abandoning the business. Let us stick to our own paradox.
Most of the misunderstanding about the role of the proletariat is due to the class-war obsession. Because the class-war is a fundamental fact of capitalism, socialists are apt to let their ideology be dominated by it. They are afraid, naturally, that unless they continually demonstrate the reality of class-injustice they will be unable to awaken the people to the necessity for the abolition of classes. Too often the effect is to produce cynicism. When men are shown universal injustice they lose their old faith but do not necessarily get a new one. They agree that there is everywhere the tyranny of classes, but they do not see classlessness. Instead they hear of a possible great working class victory. It seems to them pretty much the same old story, a new class but the same injustice. And if they are middle-class they think they might as well stand by their class even if they no longer believe in it. The ranks of fascism are full of dead men, of men who have no belief and are therefore in times of urgency at the mercy of any traditional voice which orders their lives for them. For others, the demonstration of the rottenness of present society leaves only an uncertain knowledge that somehow or other new orders of society do appear. You never know, perhaps credit reform might do it, perhaps science. That is not enough.
[Abbreviated from “The Great Proletarian Mystery”, in The Adelphi, vol.VIII, January 1934. As reprinted in Revolt Against an ‘Age of Plenty’, op. cit.]
In these days of the decadence of the great Liberal creed, when all parties are apt to call in the state to organise the chaos of competitive individualism, we cannot but marvel at the magnificent act of faith which said: leave individuals to sell freely with each other and the world will be alright … One can see how mad that must have sounded to the nobility and churchmen and kings whose profession it was to put the individual in his place. What a thing to trust to! The individual conscience, better than all the popes and colleges of cardinals; the individual initiative, more skilful than the trained corps of the aristocracy. Those brewers and merchants and petty tradesman had a flair for human quality, if you like. Compare their magnificent faith with the frigid planning and authority-mongering of their successors – it is the difference between eager youth and pottering age.
They were the voices of the people; they believed in the people. Not enough, perhaps, but enough to get some splendid things done. But now, the people have gone, disappeared out of cultural consciousness. Instead we have the masses. The word “masses” is as terrifying to modern masters as the word “people” was to the old catholic priesthood and nobility of reformation times. They are both words which to snobbish ears seem to oppose number to quality. To the protestant tradesman, however, the word “people” opposed the unborn quality of individuals to the dead quality of caste. It was a gamble in human potentials. It came off.
Now, we are a mass-civilisation which will not recognise its own character. All our institutions are cracked and strained by the washing of this great tide of multitudes, whom no one can give a voice to. They are there, the mass must be served, but none have joy in their service. You must give the public what it wants, or else sell what you want to the few persons constituted like yourself. You cannot work for men anymore: it must be either for mass or for the intelligentsia. That is a hell of a problem for us. What is it for the ordinary man?
He doesn’t understand the intelligentsia, who are busy with their own problems, and the “What the public wants” school don’t understand him. They give what he is prepared to pay for; and that, they say, is what he wants. Well, he wants a bit of fun and he’ll buy anything that promises to give it to him. That doesn’t mean he gets what he wants. He only gets what’s going. Fair-ground folk are apt to jeer at the fools they take in (one born every minute kind of thing), but if you’ve ever been to a fair, you quickly realise that the boys go there intending to be taken in – it’s part of the fun. Nobody really believes that the two-headed baby actually has two heads, only they appreciate anyone taking the trouble to fake it for them. Similarly it is very unsafe to suppose that people who buy the Daily Express or the Daily Mail (if anybody does buy the Daily Mail these days) believe in all the twaddle they see there. The ordinary man regards his newspaper as very much in the margin of his life.
And his newspaper, the mammoth-sale mass-journal, like his film, is a very bad guess at what he is like. It is compiled by cynics who think they are serving slaves, and who feel Barnum’s own sting in their humiliation at the servitude. They give expression to what they think is the slave-character of the masses. But the ordinary man of this civilisation is potentially free and powerful; there is nothing for which he can be enslaved. And he is enslaved, for nothing. Millions of him are kept in idleness because slavery is unprofitable, and freedom is fearful to contemplate. The slavery is unnecessary, and therefore it has to be maintained by lying. And because all those enslaved to the idea of masters hate and dread the idea of the ordinary men (whom they call “masses”) being freed, the whole of popular culture is a concocted slander by which would-be superior people defend their groundless superiority.
But actually the ordinary man is fine. Not the average man. He is a cerebral abstraction, like that average child which educationalists abuse themselves by playing with. Nor the “little man”, nor the “man-in-the-street.” All these are the conscious belittlements of those who cannot endure the richness of mere life, and must construct smoked glasses by a mental formula to dim it down lest their own ego be quenched by it. The common male of the species is fine. So, of course, is any bird or any tree. We take the poet’s word for it in the case of “natural” creatures; when it comes to men we listen to economists, or scientists, or journalistic hacks. Yet, precisely what is needed is another act of faith in the ordinary man. Give him the mastery of the machine-world which no masters of men can control, and things will be alright. You can bet on that.
[Originally published as “Slander is no Whispering Zephyr”, (The Sweeper Up) in The Adelphi, vol.VIII, June 1934. Reprinted as “Masses” in Revolt Against an ‘Age of Plenty’, op. cit.]
[Endangeredphoenix note: The following beautifully illustrates many aspects of the world we have mostly lost, at least in what are called the 'advanced' industrial countries - though it still reflects aspects of life in other parts of the world.]
You all know and have heard of a figure most popular in our newspapers, the Man in the Street. His views you would suppose to be well worth taking into account so frequently are they quoted; and if we were really in good heart about things we might take pleasure in a nation which could thus honour its own anonymity and give its commonest wisdom a place in the daily counsels of the press. However, in these days you suspect everything. Like me, I bet you have often wondered whether this Man in the Street was really of the Street. His opinions so often indicate that he is really the Man behind the Lawn-mower, or the Man in the Wicker-work Lounge, or even the Person in plus-fours. He is suburban and often peevish, but you do not catch him uttering the true plebian growl. Now that’s a pity: were he genuine, he would be a most excellent oracle for us to have. As a national mentality we are sadly villa-built and maisonetted; we could do with a proper gutter-flow sometimes.
Mind you, there are men in the street and of it. In fact you can usually deduce your fellow-Briton’s class status from the way he regards the street. To some it is merely a. communication between one spot or another, a channel or runway to guide your feet or your wheels when you are going places. To others it's where you live. The average working-class house is a small and inconvenient place. Nobody wants to put up with the noise of children in it more than they have to - out they go, then, into the street. Similarly, a man can’t do any casual entertaining there, not so as to suit him. If his pals call, they all go out together - down the street, that is, to the boozer. Even the women find it a pleasanter change if they want company to go and stand on the doorstep. Add these up and you get a most characteristic working-class scene: crowds of kids flying here and there across the road; boys and youths by the shop windows and the corner-ends; men strolling the pavements or sitting shirt-sleeved by the doors; and the women in their aprons taking a breather in a bit of gossip with "next-door." These people live in the street.
But don’t think it’s all a bleedin’ shame, the way we’ve got to be thinking about nearly every working-class circumstance. Why, there’s such a good communal stir and warmth out on the pavements that it would be a queer kiddy that would sooner sit indoors than mix in it - even if indoors was a palace! From his earliest days he is committed to the communality outside, making his first appearance in a pram, very likely second-hand, or borrowed from Auntie Emmie, who has knocked off kid-making since she had indigestion so bad, pushed by a little girl from three doors higher up. There he goes a-sailing, the mother at first watching from the step, and the little girl being extra careful so as to show she’s worthy of the charge. Nobody knows what a baby is taking in, lying there with the sky stroking over his undefended sight, or sitting up and nodding as he tries to focus a fledgling gaze upon the multitude of objects that make noises. There are so often a lot of dirty little hands clutching the pram-side and bright faces peering in; rough boys come tearing by, yelling, sometimes banging into it and the pram rocks - goo, doesn’t he like the rumpus! That’s his Introduction. No wonder that the moment he can toddle by himself he makes for the street-door like a duck to the pond. Who wants a mother in a crowd like this? When he tumbles, one of the bigger girls will pick him up and wipe away the tears and snots; and the boys will generally turn from their games to administer rough justice to anyone who steals his sweets or toys. He gets to know where he stands with everybody easily and naturally. There’s none of that abrupt transition from home to school which in another class leaves the soft fibres of affection torn and bleeding as the little marvel in his mother’s eye becomes in a twinkling the weakest nonentity of a crowd. No, our toddler is amphibious from the start. There’s no shock to him in learning to step from the warm home atmosphere into the brisker world outside. So far he’s all right; it’s later on he’ll get knocks that the other laddie will be spared.
Now his street very likely is made up like this. (I speak of an actual one, rather than take an average of many, for averages have only a very meagre truthfulness.) There’ll be a continuous row on one side of upstairs and downstairs flats, one up, one down, each with its own front-door. So you get two front doors together led up to by a stretch of cement, then a garden belonging to the downstairs flat. The garden is about six foot deep and is enclosed in a low wall and iron railings, the railings spiked, of course, so that the kids will tear their clothes on them. Next, another couple of doors, another garden, and so on to the end of the street. Here stands the pub, huge in relation to any other edifice in sight, for its opposite number at the further end is only a little corner grocery run by a snuffy old man who gives tick, and shoves an extra ha’penny on everything. Each of these houses has a back-yard opening on the back lane and looking over to the backs of the next street. The back lane is the artery of trade. There is a regular procession of hawkers and delivery carts up and down it. Also, of course, mothers would prefer their children to play there, so they won’t dirty the front doorstep with their comings and goings.
Facing the row is the wide front street, and the corner-ends of several cross-streets which lead at right-angles from it. On these cornerends are first, a fruiterer’s, next, a shop that sells bread and confectionery; a barber’s a newsagent and confectioner; a shop that is empty every few months, at which practically everything has been tried sometime or other, but nothing will go because it is unlucky; next a hand-laundry; and finally, opposite the pub, a miserable little drapery. There now, there’s variety for you. A kiddy in that street comes to know these corner-ends as intimately as he knows the furniture in his own home. Each of them in turn has been his playground. In the cold winter nights he has huddled up against the panes of the best-lighted shop because it seemed warmer there, and played guessing-games with the names of the goods, or listened to the bigger lads telling stories of the mad woman in No.7; or he has run into the barber’s to shout “Have you any Wild Woodbines ? - well, tame them then.” With the first drying of the pavements in March he has chalked big rings on the cement at the corner for marbles; when he was little he was taken by the girls to look at the pretty pinafores in the drapery; as a biggish lad he stood uncomfortable in his new boots on a Sunday afternoon in summer seeing the little girls on their way to Sunday school stop to admire their white dresses reflected dimly in the glass of the grocer’s window where a faded blue blind hangs. As a dribbly-nosed eleven-year-old he stood in the sharp autumn evenings watching the doors of the bottle-and-jug department, their brass streaking as they swung to, waiting for Ma and hoping she’d send him for fish-and-chips for supper; and when he was about the school-leaving age and his voice was breaking, he’d lorded it over the younger lot leaning against the newsagent’s and puffing his fag. This street is his own place. For many a year if you wanted him you mentioned his nickname first, Tich or Conky or Poke, then the name of his corner-gang, the Judd Street, the Engine Terrace, or the Taylor’s Row. Here then are the hallowed quadrangles a working-man remembers when he thinks back on his youth.
But what about school then, says you. Ah now, with school begins his contact with the upstairs world which so far he has only known of as buffered off by his parents. And school, which is the council school, of course, is in origin quite alien to working-class life. It does not grow from that life; it is not “our” school, in the sense in which other schools can be so spoken of by the folk of other classes. The government forced them on us, and the real shaping of the working-class boy goes on after they are shut. That is a very important point to remember: that school in working-class life expresses nothing of that life; it is an institution clapped on from above. Thus all his life a man from this environment will regard many knowledges and skills with a suspicion which is incomprehensible to those who found that learning to be their natural birthright. He will fumble with a foreign language as though he had a secret shame in being found learning it at all; and in this, for there are always these harkings-back, he is of closer kin to the nineteenth century middle-class than to the nimble-tongued young bourgeois of to-day.
In the council schools you are taught a respect for white collars, punctuality (the best prizes usually go for this), a certain amount of docility, patriotism, religion, and the rest of the half-hearted precepts which school teachers are unwillingly pushed into spreading. Also, of course, the indispensable mechanical proficiencies necessary to every citizen nowadays: reading, writing and elementary arithmetic. Other subjects, history, geography science, are by way of meaningless decoration. Only an occasional starved enthusiast teaches them seriously at all. So school is a halfhearted affair, and the children know that it is half.hearted. There cannot be a disciplined way of life taught there as in the public schools, though nowadays you get many foolish attempts at imitations of it, for you are not preparing these boys for any lordly functions, and you have not the honesty plainly to shape them for the job they are going to get. Any ideals that appear there are so sham the kids see through them at once; it is the hints of power, the cautions which slip out every now and then which are really important.
Now that uneasy amalgam is not enough life which awaits them when they’ve done school. It is outside, in the street, where there lives a tradition which does naturally breed the qualities necessary for the factory. The corner-lads have it. It is dead against white collars, of course; boys of all classes will be when they can, but here the mere boyish dislike is given importance. A white collar is not only the teacher’s insignia, it is the bosses’. And their sons’. As he grows up the corner-lad becomes aware of the other districts so unlike his own, in which the quiet afternoon is undisturbed save by the short whirr of a lawn-mower, and the pavements have almost a bloom on them— a kind of faint bluishness—as the nursemaids sail their great perambulators hushed on soft rubber down them. In these live the bosses and their children. And here the corner-gang meet something that daunts them, and will continue to daunt them all their life. They meet laddies whom they might scorn for being too prettily turned out and too obedient to mother, but these boys have an incredible uppishness which is so fixed it must be based upon something. It is, it is something not properly belonging to the boyhood world at all, something which scraps of the men’s talk has hinted at. Before this the children of poor homes are abashed.
Similarly, as in all youth organisations, the corner-gang has a scorn for scholarship and an immense admiration for every form of physical prowess. But here it is a frank adolescent admiration unlinked to any social ideal. No middle-aged buffers come along to drape an instinctive feeling in the banners of beaming exhortation, to hitch their wagon to this star of young manhood. The corner-lad lives in a kind of outlawry. No one sees in his outbreaks of hooliganism a fine spirit of youth which may be turned to good account in the next war, class or imperial. The law looks on him with suspicion; it need not. The lads mean no harm and the factory will claim that turbulence for its own and have a harness round it soon enough.
The corner-gang has its own method of training its members in quick-wittedness and physical prowess. When they are out the best all-round lad will set the pace. Whatever he does, everybody has to do in turn, down to the smallest and weakest. You can see the possible penalties of this. For instance, the leading lad thinks maybe it would be a good idea to have some potatoes to roast over a fire on the waste ground. He sidles past the fruiterers’ where there’s a sack in the doorway and knocks one off. Easy. But there’s perhaps nine in the gang, and the shopkeeper has had some experience of this sort of thing before. If you’re last, you’ve got to be pretty nippy to escape a clouting. Thus is ability equalised and everybody kept up to scratch.
In a very similar fashion income is equalised. Suppose you strike it lucky. The back window of the grocery store-house happens to be broken; you notice it first and manage to fiddle a tin of corned beef out of it. Well, if you kept that to yourself you’d be disgraced for ever. You have to shell out. The same thing happens if, on some hard-up week-end, your old pot happens to come home cheery with beer or from a win on a horse, and flings you a copper or two. Now you may be thinking of buying chocolate or going to the pictures. But there’s the hungry gang to consider. They are all broke. So their decision is that you buy two-pennyworth of bruised fruit or stale cakes - then all get a whack.
This is the kind of social compulsion which you respect because you have accepted it voluntarily and because it agrees with that which you see operating upon your parents. You often hear your father grumbling about his union dues and sneering at the fat sods down in London who live well on them, all the same when he’s been working late or on the nightshift or something, and you are sent along to pay them, you feel at once in the atmosphere of the branch meeting a rightness which no real man would want to be outside. The branch is held in a room above the pub. The men stand around drinking and talking among themselves until somebody sees fit to harangue them; and there’s such a feeling of strong good-hearted maleness about, that you -a mere twelve-year-old maybe—are flattered to be admitted to it. You’ll remember that afterwards as something to go for. To be an equal in that company is a better thing, you know, than to excel in the odd manoeuvres of the council school. Yet the men themselves don’t think so. Or they appear not to. When one of them is moved to take an interest in his son’s welfare—a blue moon occurrence it is, too—he tells the lad to be like anyone else but his dad. He never goes to church himself, except for marrying and burying, but he’ll send his kids to the Sunday School religiously enough. Partly in order to get them out of the way so that he and the missus can have a Sunday afternoon doss, but also because, whenever he thinks of it, he realises the children should have some sort of instruction in the matter of morals and what-not. Similarly the biggest boozer in the street will insist on all his kids joining the Rechabites - a teetotal organisation. The children are willing enough to do this. Here’s one reason why: Rechabite membership costs you a penny a week, and your father is very willing to pay it; you pay your penny first week and get a card; the next five weeks you say you’ve forgotten your penny, and as the Rechabites know their crowd they don’t press you too hard; the result is, you’ve had five extra pennies for yourself. Of course, the danger is that your father will ask to see your card some time—say, if he has been rather heavily on the wallop one week-end, so the matter is in his mind. Well, at best you get away with a good lie; at worst, a good hiding. Then again the Rechabites give lantern-lectures, the Drunkard’s Doom, you know, and as the hero of this series is the very spit of your old man, you have the pleasure of seeing him get his just deserts. Then you tell your ma what you’ve seen and she is so delighted to have her husband discomforted by the resemblance even the child can see - that you’re in her good books for days. There’s the country or sea-side trip during the summer - you want to be in on that. Also they give little prizes. for rather silly things. For instance, once in a branch I belonged to there was a prize going for the lad who could name all the pubs on the main street nearby. We turned up all of us with lists of from twenty to thirty. All except Ginger Bowman: he said there were forty-one. We knew of his total before we went in and were reconciled to him having won. But the teachers, in whose sight Ginger was by no means a reliable little boy, thought he’d been extravagant. They put his list aside. He was outraged. He yelled that he knew there were that many, because he’d asked his old man who’d been in them all. We then joined in and told the teachers that if old Bowman said there were forty-one pubs there, he knew, no one better. The teachers had to give way, murmuring how dreadful it was. And the result was on the following Saturday night, here’s old Bowman boasting of his son winning a prize in the Rechabites~a thing himself was never likely to do.
Generally, parental advice lay along the lines of “get a pen instead of a pick”, or get out of the working-class if you can. But the trouble is, advice without example is never any good to children. We saw what our people really valued by the way they lived. It was not clean collars. Mind you, nearly every proletarian will tell you how much he’d like a clean-collar job. He enjoys clean collars. Working-class wives know what a row there is if the old man hasn’t a clean collar to put on when he’s going out on a Saturday night. Clean collars and well-brushed boots is the order of it. But it means no more than the city man’s interest in a navvy’s muscles. Whenever there’s a road up anywhere in the City you’re bound to see a crowd of clean faces absolutely enthralled before the spectacle of the pick-swinger. They have sacrificed something of their physical virtue to the desk and the fuller pay-packet; they are attracted and moved to a kind of sick envy by the man who hasn’t. There you have it. The fellow with the muscles would like a clean collar; the clean collar man fancies himself muscled up— it’s natural. Nevertheless, when you get down to hard fact, the city man’s wife is not much afraid that her husband will throw up his business and take to swinging the pick; nor does the working-class woman ever count on her brawny No. 1 suddenly gracing a desk.
The same thing applies with the other virtues from above. Thrift, for instance. Practically all the older folks at any rate will assent to it. They think, see, that if they’d saved while they were young, they’d be doing fine now. Also, of course, most of the women have to be careful anyway, and all the men are in favour of all the wives being careful all the time. Well, there’s plenty of canny care in the management of the homes - there has to be - but thrift, in the full bourgeois sense of the word, as a means of rising higher step by step, is generally a failure here. Something intervenes. The young fellow who’s put by a hundred quid, gets married, and bit by bit, or kid by kid, he gravitates to the floor again. His next chance comes when the family is up and beginning to earn for themselves. He puts by what he can. But then perhaps there’s a wave of unemployment. As an elder man, he goes out first. Even so, he can make do for a bit without seriously depleting the pile. But then, perhaps, his eldest son gets the shove. And that lad has a couple of kids depending on him; or else, he’s just put a girl in the family way and must get married. So it goes. One way or the other, there are few working-men who ever do more than ease their last years, however thrifty they’ve been.
The majority, luckily, aren’t excessively troubled by this virtue. When they are making good money, it really is “good” money, that is, money which instantly crystalises into pianos and football teams and motor-bikes and new boots all round the family. It rarely becomes investments, which after all, are but nooses of debt round other folks’ necks. The rest of the time money in the hands of the proletarian is simply the few bobs left over at the week-end after the wife’s had her lot. It might be five bob; it might be fifteen. Even if it’s the bare dollar, it’s enough for a gesture; it’s something to fling in the face of the fates on a Saturday night. Of course, you know that bit of cash is really needed for a hundred other things; it’s a terrible sin against the gods of thrift and security to fling it away. Well, yes, but then you need a bit of that courage in order to live a proletarian life at all. And those who have the physical good of a week’s hard, honest work inside them naturally want to give and not to possess. They accept the symbol of giving nearest to hand; a round of drinks is the gift you can make without laying a claim on the fellows you give it to. Generosity’s perfect motion should be writ in water, strong water, for any firmer record is always liable to become debt.
In these people’s hands money does not breed. They’ll cheerfully deplore that if you ask them, for they think it is one of their weaknesses. Yet we, looking on, might be glad of it. Only a part of our nation are money-breeders, and when we think what evil that part has managed to do, we should congratulate ourselves that the whole lot are not given the same way. In theory, however, they are. In the ordinary economic picture presented to us, the proletariat is not a separate class of different traditions to the dominant one; it is merely a category of the least successful would-be bourgeoisie, men in whom the authentic economic flame burns though dimly. That is why they are not given a working-class education; and why, though it is to every shopkeeper’s benefit that they should spend, they are never congratulated for being spendthrifts except in the advertisements of hire purchase firms. Their school struggles faint-heartedly to turn out diminished little gentlemen. They pay very little heed to it. I know the headmaster of one rather superior council school who was once struck by the idea of having an Old Boys’ Reunion. The scheme was a complete flop. The old boys, who never until they received his communication ever thought of themselves as Old Boys, thought it would be damn silly to be going back to school at their age. The reason is they never thought of their school as of much importance to them anyway. No one from this area ever hates the council school with half the virulence some ex-public schoolboys show with regard to theirs. Simply it is that the council school is not so significant either one way or the other; it doesn’t get deep into anyone’s life. It does not lead naturally to a career and a seat with one’s equals.
Your contact with the lads of the corner does. When the times comes to leave school you are up against a dilemma if you have taken much notice of what they said there. For by council school precepts you ought to be looking for an office job, so that you can practise the virtues of cleanliness, politeness to teacher, patriotism and self-help. Also by economic theory this is the moment when the market-laws exercise their natural selection, the able are exalted and the less-able turned away. According to current fable, the single worthy lad out of thousands with the same ambition will now take his seat among the mighty; the brainy sensible little proletarian will at once sleek his hair with brilliantine and sit mum on an office stool until diligence and sobriety permit him to rise. The rest, turned away through not having tried hard enough or not having the moral stamina, become reconciled to a life of toil. So it looks from above, perhaps. But, believe me, it isn’t really so. Those who sit in Paradise watching the pearly gates will probably have a good idea how the next arrival managed to get in; they’ll never know what keeps so many outside. Actually many a thousand able lads, with the potentiality of rising in the world, choose not to. They choose to stay with the crowd they respect rather than join the pale-faces who slip off singly to a higher sphere. They simply can’t see themselves sitting clean and respectable at an Old Boys’ Reunion; their picture is of the older lads they have always looked up to, how these fortunates sit around in dirty overalls, proud of calloused hands, the tang of maleness on them from rubbing against a tough crowd in the local shipyard or factory. For the boy brought up in that sort of street, the choice is pretty well predetermined unless he is physically weak or his parents have an extra strong will to get on in the world.
Let us seize upon this positive. In defiance of all economic law, many and many people actually choose to work as proletarians, not because that’s the only work they’d ever be able to do but because it actually seems more attractive to them. It comes naturally after the corner-lad stage. In the factories, mines and shipyards, there is the same opportunity for physical hardihood, the same rough equal-f ity and unadorned respect for one’s essential manhood, the same sense of outlawry and alien oppression formerly represented by the teacher and the constable, now symbolised by the bosses and the managerial staff. If you were happy in the street, you’ll be at home in the works.
It has become the habit of left-wing propagandists to be for ever talking of the sufferings of the exploited workers, so much of a habit that listening to them you would think the factories were unmitigated hell. This, like the bread-and-butter complex which the same parties have also got, dates from the early days of socialism, and arises partly from a jealous admiration of the privileges of bourgeois life. There is a considerable deal of truth in it, of course: the fact of exploitation is real. It is so real that it comes staring out of the faces of men who deny it exists. Yet there is much more than the naked negative truth to it; and that more must also have its day.
Consider: what is it that has kept the farm-labourer peaceful under the most infamous exploitation for centuries? Why, that he gets a goodness out of his work, even if there's little in his wages. He has the certainty that the soil is worth serving. It would be easy to ca-canny and let the land or the beasts get sickly. That would be no more than the land-owners deserve, since they take no care of him or his if he fails for any reason to keep up his toil. But does he do that? No fear. He enjoys his skill; it is a satisfaction to him to work on the nature of the soil and make it yield as much as it will even if that yield comes never to his table, not in its fullness. And because he has this goodness of genuine work in him, he is easy with things, he does not keep a wary eye on his neighbour, he can be robbed and robbed again.
Something of the same is true of an urban worker, though perhaps not quite to the same degree. There is, you know, a curious humming peace about a factory in full running, a steady pulse of human strength beating against and with the machines. You can almost feel the warmth of the blood, the tensing and flexing of so many muscles, as though the air had made a gathering of so many motions and become a vehicle in which the urge of a united will smote and shaped into the obstinacy of metal. There is something deeply satisfying in the steady running of the belts, the endless hum and clang, the low colours. Now an office by comparison is all nerves, fidgeting white paper, and peaked white faces. The one makes you think of quarts of beer, the other of pound notes. They are poor explainers who see in this merely a crowd of unfortunates, too inefficient to get a properly paid job, and compelled to follow the economic trail into this treadmill. Actually you see here in full activity one of the foundation-abilities on which western civilisation rests: the ability of men to combine peacefully in work which benefits a remote community. Yet how pitifully it is overlaid and maltreated. There are, fortunately for us, a considerable host of men who are so little interested in their own economic potentialities that, penalise them how you may, they will still prefer to do real work, work which benefits others, rather than pursue the augmentation of their own private fortunes. It’s lucky for us ; it gets us where we are; and if that were enough we might rest content in the mere moral shame of it. But alas! or thank Christ! (take your pick) we can’t stay there. Even the work-mugs have known for a long time some sort of a move has to be made. What move? That they have to find out.
(From "The Freedom Of The Streets", published 1938)