Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Scene of the Crime (4): Love on the Dole (1975)

From the February 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

The City of Salford, to the west of the city of Manchester, covers an area which in 1844 was described by Frederick Engels as "The Classic Slum". Almost a hundred years later, Walter Greenwood's novel and play Love on the Dole (1933), depicted a part of Salford close by the Parish Church of Pendleton known as Hanky Park which had changed very little since the time of Engels.

The novel Love on the Dole has a quotation on the flyleaf from James Russell Lowell — "The time is ripe, and rotten ripe, for change; then let it come . . . " But the right time for change for capitalism is when the competitiveness of the system demands a change in the overall pattern of industrial production. New productive methods, re-siting of industrial areas, new methods of transportation, improvements in shipping, railways and road transport.

Salford in 1933, like other industrial areas in Britain, was suffering from unemployment which had begun in the early 1920s. Love on the Dole like many novels of its kind deals with the lives of working people, their personalities shaped and fashioned by the full-time commitment of working for wages, that is when work was available; when it was not, they spent their time on the dole, an experience made as uncomfortable as possible, since society's attitude to the unemployed had changed very little from the days of the "Poor Relief" of earlier years. From birth, expectations of the working class are tied to a period of socialization in slum conditions. The environmental influences of education and deprivation develop personalities suitable only as replacements for those workers who physically and mentally are no longer considered suitable for exploitation.

This at its best; at its worst the economic system based on capital and wage-labour plumbs the degradative depths, denies any flowering of the creative potential that lies stagnant and rotting in personalities shaped by its greed for profit and which under the more humane conditions of a free, Socialist society, would blossom beyond present-day experience.

The Salford of 1933 was becoming less and less influenced by the cotton and mining industries. A greater effect upon it was being made by the industrial area of Trafford Park, which claimed to be the heaviest concentration of industry in Europe, and of course the Manchester Ship Canal developed for the transportation of manufactured goods. Such concentrations of industry kept a large working population tied to within easy reach of its source of life, employment for wages. The homes available for working people of the area had been built a century before. They could hardly be described as dwellings, they were merely places of refuge in which human beings rested between periods of being in work or on the dole.

Love on the Dole successfully portrays its characters and their behaviour in an environment of poverty. One of the novel's main characters, Larry Meath, is a skilled workman who spends his leisure time in reading and political activity. Political activity for Larry Meath is of course the reformism of the Labour Party, as of course was the author's. In 1933 the Labour Party was engaged in attracting the working class of Salford from its support of the Conservative and Liberal Parties. Such colourful characters as Joe Toole, who represented South Salford in 1924 and himself a product of the salford slums, spread confusion in the minds of the working class since they began to identify Socialism with reforms, particularly better housing conditions — they had even begun to notice that (see Our Old Man, Millie Toole, 1948).

To-day Salford can boast of two Labour MPs who for all intents and purposes might as well not exist. But since Love on the Dole raises the question of the need for social change we might turn our thoughts to the Salford of to-day particularly in the area once known as Hanky Park.

Hanky Park, the area of terraced slums, has given way to the modern interpretation of high-rise slums, because to the Socialist what defines a slum is comparison with that which could be a reality under the prevailing technological possibilities of the times. A few hundred yards from this great social experiment of high-rise flats and modern shopping precinct is an area known as Lower Broughton picturized in the BBC's Man Alive programme entitled "Get us out of here" (Saturday 9th November, 1974). In housing conditions which would make the Classic Slum look like a description of lordly estates, working men and women still live and cry out for a place in the sun.

But what about the motorway system which has made Salford and Manchester perhaps better served than anywhere in the country? These modern roads for the purpose of transporting manufactured goods, quick returns on capital investment, are the last word in technological innovation. In planning the new Salford and its industrial estates, places like Hanky Park, if they were in the way, had to come down. Lower Broughton and the other areas of Salford like it will have to wait; the needs of industry come first. A Labour government has shown that it can reform no quicker than any other Government since the system to which it can only act as handmaiden will determine how quickly and in whose interests social reform will take place.

A truer historical perspective of the Classic Slum is a book with that title written by Robert Roberts (1971). The author writes:
Through a familiarity so long and close, this district must have become for Engels the very epitome of all industrial ghettoes, the classic slum itself. He died in 1895 having seen that little world change, develop, prosper even, yet stay in essence the same awful paradigm of what a free capitalist system could produce. By 1900 the area showed some improvement; his cow stable had doubtless been demolished together with many other noisome den, but much that was vile remained.
In 1974, a Socialist revisiting the Salford in which he was born and lived in childhood has to admit that change has undoubtedly taken place. But much that was vile in the time of Engels and in the time of Walter Greenwood still remains and will remain until with purpose and the correct understanding, men and women create a new society which they will manipulate in their own interest and not in the interest of an economic system which, as cities like Salford glaringly illustrate, has outlived its usefulness.
Alf Atkinson

The Scene of the Crime (3): These Poor Hands (1975)

From the January 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Scene of the Crime: 3

These Poor Hands (B. L. Coombes)

Novels and narratives concerned with working-class lives have always been a favourite theme with writers whose interests have lain within the field of realism. Such writers could be placed within two categories; those who observed and wrote mainly "from the outside" and whose writings bear the imprint of "academics" and those who wrote "from the inside" having actual experience of the anguish, despair and poverty of which they speak. The latter, when it emerges, cannot but bear the stamp of authenticity and such a writer was Coombes.

It is often the case that the reader is "manipulated" by the use of sentiment and characterization often larger than life combined with theatrical situations. Not that writers whose roots lay in the working class did not do the same thing. Robert Tressell in his Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and Jack Jones in his novels were masters in the art of the humorous and theatrical. These Poor Hands has its modicum of humour as well as pathos. It is exploited cleverly in the attitude of "Tiger", an old rabbit-catcher, who when handed a religious tract by a travelling evangelist and told that it was "a letter from the Lord" said: "Well, I'll be damned. It's a heck of a time since I heard from him".

Then what can be more pathetic than the picture which describes the processions of labourers and their families with their pitiful possessions piled on wagons, the women and children peeping from underneath oilskin sheets as do animals on their way to market; as such indeed they were, for this was Candlemas time when farm labourers were thrown out and others brought in. Any illusions of a contented country community where people lived close to nature and "watched the turmoil of the outside world" go by, are shattered by such scenes. This situation has continued throughout the years and up to the present time.

In the Wales where Coombes made is home one can see large areas of rural depopulation at the present time. As in the industrial areas, the countryside shows clearly what happens when workers cannot find an employer. The village cottages become "second homes" for holiday-makers, while large areas of fertile ground are given over to caravan sites rather than made to grow food. All this has given room futile activity by Nationalistic groupings who cannot see that the exodus of workers in one direction and the influx of people in another direction is part of the need for employment on one hand, and the need for relaxation from the stress of industrial and city life, on the other. Both these needs can, under the circumstances, only be met by the possession of money.

It is not that the workers of Coombes' youth were ignorant of the source of power that slumbered under the opiates dished out by the church and state. There were some, like his father who when he asked a local landowning Squire to rent him a piece of waste ground was told that it was far too valuable. "Certainly not", said the squire: "It's the most valuable piece of land I've got". "Some months later", says Coombes, "the same gentleman approached my father and say 'I suppose you have heard that I am standing at the next Election? we've been neighbours for some years. Can I count on you for your vote?" "Certainly not", said his father. "It's the most valuable thing I've got".

The miners threw up their leaders, men who in the main were of the blood and guts of the valleys' but such is the nature of leadership that corruption is ever-present. Coombes complains, for example, of the isolation of the miners' leaders from the mass of the men. Their very absence from the heart of the industry, he says, "makes them feel more contented with the conditions of those they represent." This, looking at the situation prevailing in the great trade unions of the present time, is a growing phenomenon. The trade union movement is also forced to co-operate in the business of running industry "for the sake of the country". The spectacle of the gulf between leaders and led is one that has certainly been growing from the times mentioned in Coombes' book. Last month one of Wales's leading poets wrote a satire on the role of leadership in the mining industry. He obviously refers to those who, with a modicum of mining back-ground, trade on the sentiments (and political ignorance) of the miner: -
Shine up the blue scar on my forehead
A bluer there's not to be found
There's lucky I was to be clumsy
The two days I worked under-ground
In the evolution of the British working class one knows that from about the middle of the 18th century the picture begins to change with rapidly increasing impetus. Rural Britain and its field labourers gives way to industrial Britain and its factory workers (though vestiges of the mediaeval system still lingered during the years of Coombes' boyhood, as he shows). One is not surprised to find an increased impetus in literature of a sociological character. Coombes followed in the line of Tressell and others even lesser known, like George Walker and Sykes to whom we owe the tale of "Ben o' Bill's The Luddite" who, together with his comrades "banded together to resist the encroachments and the cruelty of Capital."

Coombes, though a man of very little formal education and an √©migr√© to Wales, found that the worker is the same kind of person everywhere. His book is an autobiography which affords food for thought as to whether, technological changes notwithstanding, the lot of the working class has changed in a fundamental sense. When he speaks of the stoppages and strikes of 1926 we are reminded of the events of last year. When he tells us of the terrific surge for coal from 1893 and the throughout the 1914 war we are reminded of one of the strongest arguments put forward by Keir Hardie and others for nationalization — to ensure that Britain had a secure source of fuel for the Navy and the security of the country. In telling of the life of the miner, this rugged old collier reminds us of those countless "poor hands" which left their bloody marks on the coal. It is up to the reader to find the cause for the tragedy, the suffering and the wasted lives he speaks about.

And so one still meets the Coombes of this world: words penned by fingers broken in the service of capitalism. Thus, literature of the kind we have been discussing serves a purpose, be it a limited one. It should be looked upon as a whetting stone which one would hope leads on to the desire for Socialist knowledge, for it is only by the acquisition of Socialist knowledge that our class can abolish for ever the suppression of one class by another. If the reader of this Journal will but get down to a study of the Declaration of Principles contained herein he might decide that it is time he (or she) began to do something positive to ensure that the writers of the future will have no cause to write the kind of book such as we have been discussing.
W. Brain

The Scene of the Crime (2): No Mean City (1974)

From the November 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

A series of articles recalling famous books about working-class conditions in particular areas of Britain, and viewing those areas today.

During the thirties, a Gorbals bakery worker and a journalist by the names of McArthur and H. Kingsley Long wrote a novel describing the Glasgow slum area — the Gorbals — as it appeared to them in the 20's and 30's.

Basically, it is the story of a slum hooligan named Johnnie Stark, nicknamed Razor King, and of the gangland violences which were regular features of Glasgow life at that period. The gangs in Glasgow were not organized for criminal purposes and were hooligans trying to overcome the boredom and monotony of a sordid existence. Most lived in squalor — ten and eleven to a room — most were unemployed.

The authors concentrate their story round the Gorbals area (McArthur lived there), but the social conditions they described could be found in all working-class slums in Glasgow; Bridgeton, Anderson, Plantation, Calton, Townhead. All that these misguided hooligans could hope to gain from their inter-gang wars was permanent facial disfigurement as a result of razor-slashing, or a cracked skull as a result of being hit on the head by a beer bottle. But the excitement and anticipation of the fight relieved the boredom, and this was a major factor in making their miserable social condition tolerable.

This perverse way of looking at life could not, nor cannot, be explained if the slum background is ignored.


The Gorbals became part of Glasgow in 1846. Situated in rather a pleasant area on the banks of the Clyde, it was originally a fishing village. (Glasgow, in fact, specialised in salmon fishing up until the 18th century). The Clyde was a fordable stream about three feet deep at the Broomilaw (eventually deepened to take ships of 25-foot draft).

The commercial development of Glasgow was due to the tobacco trade. Ships took manufactured goods, leather work, saddles, clothing materials, etc to the American colony, Virginia, and returned laden with tobacco. The Glasgow "tobacco lords" made huge fortunes.

The more pleasing architectural parts of Glasgow owe their origin to the wealth and largesse of the tobacco lords. The tobacco trade collapsed with the American War of Independence in 1776, and the heavy industrial development of the Clyde valley (coal, iron and steel) began a few years later, and started to intensify in 1815 when George Watt designed the first steamship. Glasgow became a huge immigration centre for Eastern Europeans, mainly Russian and Polish Jews, Italians, Germans, Belgians, and of course Irish (the New York of the 19th century). All came to seek employment in the mills, mines and shipyards.

Scotland generally had no large indigenous labour force, and needed immigrant labour. Glasgow probably had the highest proportion and the least time in which they could be absorbed into the meagre social background which existed. Tenement houses were literally thrown up in the immediate areas of the factory or mill. Mile upon mile of these social abominations still form the bulk of working-class housing in Glasgow. Most consist of two rooms with no bathroom or hot water and outside W.C. on each of the four floors.

A slum is a product of overcrowding and through the lack of proper washing facilities, the house usually becomes verminous. Engel's descriptions of the slums of Manchester and Salford apply with more force in Glasgow. Overcrowding, lack of privacy, and domestic discomfort forces the slum-dwellers into the streets and eventually into the pub. It is no accident that Glasgow had, or had up until recently, the highest number of pubs per square mile than any other city in the world.

Not unnaturally, the people became heavy drinkers. Unlike the slum dwellers of Calcutta and Bombay, who at least have the warmth of the sun for an ally and can even sleep in the open air, the Glasgow tenement and slum-dweller is not so lucky. Living in a soot-laden atmosphere in a cold, wet and windy climate, he becomes dominated by his living conditions and the tedium of work (and the lack of it). Such is the urgency of immediate existence they become aggressive, argumentative, and intolerant. Directed along Socialist lines this would be an advantage, but as it is these only serve to perpetuate a narrow conservatism and a suspicion of any new ideas, including those of the SPGB.


Much has since changed since 1932. For one thing Glasgow, far from being the second city in the British Empire with over 1 million inhabitants, now has a population of 816,000 (1972 estimate) — a reduction of 18 per cent in the last twelve years. Many of the slums have gone, but many more remain. In fact, the slum reception housing areas built in 1933-37 like Blackhill and Shettleston are rapidly becoming slum areas as overcrowding grows afresh. It should not be assumed that it was socially enlightened planners and politicians who were responsible for demolishing the slums. A far more potent reason was the appalling health hazards which these slums produced. Apart from inevitable poverty diseases like TB and rickets, infectious diseases like scarlet fever and diphtheria were quite common in the 'twenties and 'thirties in the Gorbals in the south, Calton and Bridgeton in the east; Cowcaddens in the north and the highest infantile mortality rate of any industrial county. The infant mortality rate for the city as a whole in 1935 was 110 per thousand.

The tower blocks rise in the Gorbals — whole streets have been demolished. The Irish and the Jewish immigrants of the old Gorbals have been socially assimilated, but the Pakistanis and Indians and other Asian immigrants now take their place. The same old squalor plagues these newcomers and racial tension has now become a new element in gang warfare. The post-war slum reception areas like Castlemilk, Easterhouse and Possil have produced their own gangs and vandals, and little wonder. These cheerless cellular dormitories could only inspire in the young the urge to get out of them as quickly as possible.. Miles from the city centre, poor transport services, little or no amenities; in fact, pubs were not allowed in pre-war housing schemes. They present such a desolate prospect that many wish they were back in the slums again with its intensive social life based on the camaraderie of poverty.

Full employment after World War II eased the worst rigours of poverty. The Bingo halls and the betting shops are full. The pubs are now catering for women (a post-war innovation), and more whiskey and less "red biddy" is being drunk.


The creation of an industrial sore such as Glasgow in the heady days of unrestricted exploitation in the 19th century has taught the capitalists a very expensive lesson. The scale of re-housing, health and welfare services, were and are far higher than any city of comparable population in the UK and possibly Europe. And yet Glasgow, it is claimed, is the success story of the social reformer! Low rents, good Council housing, health centres, new schools and hospitals. The poverty of the past, we are told, is so much water under Jamaica Bridge. The drunks and the derelicts still sleep it off in the Glasgow Green, but a newer phenomenon, the prostitutes and drug addicts, are now to be seen in George Square. Truly a sign of the affluent society, as nobody could afford either in pre-war Glasgow.

Politically Glasgow has had more than its share of prominent Left-wingers. A stronghold  of the ILP for many years, it certainly did not lack advocates in Parliament — Maxton; McGovern; Campbell Stephen; Kirkwood; MacLean and others. But still Glasgow does not flourish. As unemployment re-emerges, as prices rise, and the threat of redundancy becomes more imminent, the old feeling of apprehension returns. Have the good times gone — will slump and poverty return?

The Socialist knows that we cannot have capitalism without these for very long. There is no permanence in social reform. It all has to be done again and again.


Why should the working class in Glasgow and elsewhere gamble on poverty or capitalist prosperity? This choice need not be made. Glasgow has allowed itself to be wrung dry of surplus-value by the rapacity of capitalism. Its sons became undersized, undernourished, under-housed and over-worked in order to build massive fortunes for a race of arrogant parasites. There is absolutely no reason why they should continue to do so.

If they will look beyond the sponsored parochialism of local politics to the broader issues of Socialism and consciously associate themselves with a working-class movement intent on the abolition of capitalism, then and only then will Glasgow flourish.
Jim D'Arcy

The Scene of the Crime (1): The People of the Abyss (1974)

From the August 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Scene of the Crime: 1

A series of articles recalling famous books about working-class conditions in particular areas of Britain and viewing those areas today.

In 1902 Jack London, already established as a writer in America, went to stay for seven weeks in the East End of London and write a book about it. He rented a room in a shabby quiet street, bought old clothes and a dirty cap in Petticoat Lane, and walked the streets as a sailor down on his luck. On 22nd August he wrote to his friend Sterling in California: "I've read of misery, and seen a bit, but this beats anything I could even have imagined." In later years he said: "Of all my books, I love most The People of the Abyss. No other book of mine took so much of my young heart and tears as that study of the economic degradation of the poor."

Jack London's East End was Limehouse, Poplar, West and East India Dock Roads, Mile End, Whitechapel, Spitalfields. He slept and ate in the spike, the casual ward ("I must beg forgiveness of my body for the vileness through which I have dragged it, and forgiveness of my stomach for the vileness which I have thrust into it"). He tramped the streets wet to the skin and went to the Salvation Army barracks, where the crowd of paupers were made to stand four hours and listen to speeches and prayers before being given a skinflint breakfast. He went to the hop-fields in Kent, and watched Edward VII's coronation parade in Trafalgar Square.

To what he sat, he added copiously from official statistics, newspaper items, trade unions' and social workers' reports. A census of the alleys in Spitalfields:
In one alley there are ten houses — fifty-one rooms, nearly all about 8 feet by 9 feet — and 254 people . . .  In another court with six houses and twenty-two rooms were 84 people — again 6, 7, 8 and 9 being the number living in one room, in several instances.
A report on the factory workers in "dangerous trades":
The children of the white-lead worker enter the world, as a rule, only to die from the convulsions of lead poisoning — they are either born prematurely, or die within the first year.
No wonder that Jack London wrote to Anna Strunsky: "I am made sick by this human hell-hole called the East End."

Of course he was not the first to write graphically about it. Arthur Morrison's A Child of the Jago, to which London referred, was published in 1896.  Morrison was an East Londoner himself: "the Jago" was the frightful Old Nichol district on the boundary of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch. According to Charles Booth, it had the greatest poverty of all in the East End. Morrison also, incidentally, had no good to say of the Salvation Army's charity — in his book he called General Booth the "Panjandrum of philanthropy, a mummer of the market-place".

But what impressed Jack London most was the parody of human physique in the Abyss. He wrote repeatedly of its "woebegone wretches" — the East Ender with the scrawny arm, the "stunted forms, ugly faces", the young fellow who boasted of being a fine specimen and weighing ten stone:
I was ashamed to tell him that I weighed one hundred and seventy pounds, or over twelve stone, so I contented myself with taking his measure. Poor, misshapen little man!
And the incident with two men who, walking along with him, picked up orange peel, crusts and apple cores from the filthy pavements to eat: "And this, between six and seven o'clock in the evening of August 20, year of our Lord 1902, in the heart of the greatest, wealthiest and most powerful empire the world has ever seen." London, a worshipper of strength, would notice all that specially, but others too observed it. In his book about the 1914-18 war, Disenchantment, C. E. Montague wrote of British troops on the road beside Canadian and Australian ones: "Battalions of colourless, stunted, half-toothless lads from hot, humid Lancashire mills; battalions of slow, staring faces" — against the Dominions' "taller, stronger, handsomer" men.

The People of the Abyss was published in 1903, illustrated with the author's photographs taken in East London. When submitting it to the publishers he described it as a report "from the field of industrial war", and added that it
proposed no remedies and devoted no space to theorizing — it is merely a narrative of things as they are.
However, after consultation with the publishers he made some modifications, and a letter accompanying the revised manuscript said:
I have wholly cut out the reference to the King of England in the Coronation chapter, have softened in a number of places, made it more presentable in many ways, and added a preface and a concluding chapter. 
What is the Abyss like now? Some of it is still there. The streets and alleys of Whitechapel were the scene of the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, and a book on the murders published in 1972 has recent photographs of two places where they were done. But it is all coming down, fast. Limehouse, the  dockside setting of a famous silent film called Broken Blossoms, is now an estate of council flats; Ratcliff Highway, a terrible place, is the same. So is Sidney Street, where the Russian terrorists were besieged and killed in 1911. The docks, now little used, are intended for a massive redevelopment with all kinds of amenities spoken of.

No one would say "hell-hole" now; but "affluent society" would be a misconception too. "Itchy Park," where human derelicts gather, is as appalling as anything Jack London saw. Repeatedly, cases of violent crime come out of the same East End — not by demented individuals but by gangs from those dull, neat flats (the "in" crime at present is stealing lorries for their loads). The shops and stalls along the high roads are crowded with clothes and household things which are showy but cheap and shoddy. You have the feeling in the East End that people are out of the Abyss, but only by the skin of their teeth.

The major factor in the reforms there have been was the 1914-18 war. Lloyd George told the capitalist class they had gone too far: a starved working class had scarcely the blood to shed for them. The point was taken and applied in social welfare, housing and medical services. The effect has resembled the policy of a stingy farmer, accepting the necessity to feed his stock for a profit in the market but watchful that the creatures get not a turnip more than they have to.

In one respect alterations have brought no change. Jack London wrote of the "man-killing" air of the East End:
Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, curator of Kew Gardens, has been studying smoke deposits on vegetation . . . six tons of solid matter, consisting of soot and tarry hydrocarbons, are deposited every week in every quarter of a square mile in and about London . . . Sulphuric acid in the atmosphere is continually being breathed by the London workmen through all the days and nights of their lives.
Today lorries roll in thousands continually along the highways through East London, and the result is called pollution.
Robert Barltrop