Back to Napoleonic Times
It has been suggested that the great new Labour leadership under Jeremy Corbyn wants to take us back to the 1980’s while the ‘media’ in general has deliberately failed to head-line the fact that the Tories are intent on taking the country back to Victorian times, or even earlier, to bash us into the shape of serfs under their iron rule; I’m sure that well-provided-for 78-year-olds like myself are past the threat but I just feel deeply for everybody else.
I’ve recently had a reading experience that records in a very graphic way the conditions of ordinary working people in the area where I live prior to 1837 when Queen Victoria came to her throne (not mine). This linked with a study which contains the statement that twenty million people in the UK are currently living in poverty – whilst I note that some ignorant Tory twit has suggested that people use food banks so that they can spend their money down the pub. Then I re-read a novel I first read in 1954 that inspired me to begin to think of myself as a Socialist. These references define the fundamental structure of this Glob.
How to Organise for the Coming Revolution
My wife has a passion for investigating the history of our area, focussing particularly on the local village of West Walton. She’s been reading Portrait of the Fen Country by Edward Storey (1971). Coming to a chapter describing the plight of workers in the 19th Century, she caught my attention by saying, “He could have been writing about England today under the Tories…”
Locked as we are in what has been described as the ‘specious present’, which is quite different from the activity of ‘being present to oneself’ in the NOW, we imagine that the way we live now is specific to us, without precedent, and have become set in the belief that the way things are is the way they have to be – otherwise they’d be different. It’s a belief fostered and backed up by a constant refrain from the Power Possessors: “What we’re doing is right for the country…” And so we are brain-washed into thinking that there is no alternative. ‘Times are hard – we have to reduce the Deficit…’
We only have to go back to conditions as they were in the 1880’s to realise that we are, just now, being shunted by the Tory hooligans out of the enlightenment that came from what’s been called ‘The Spirit of ’45’ – the good years of Socialism which lasted in its original condition about five years before the Tories gradually began to turn the clock back again which they are now doing with a vicious vengeance. The sad thing is that the electorate, having been brought up on easily assimilable sound-bites for years, is not in a position to know what is being destroyed; they would not believe it if it was put to them in plain language; they would not be able to concentrate for more than three minutes on the detailed explanation required to put things straight. Knowing this, it’s clear that the Bully Boys of the Right (always wrong) think that they can do whatever they want. Says Storey:-
There are many old people in the Fens today who can look back on a childhood where meat was a luxury and vegetables were eked out by using wild plants from the fields and hedgerows. A sheep’s head was a banquet and would provide the basis of many meals to come until the bones were as bare as pebbles on a beach.
Those people who can tell you of their own experience of hunger can also remember the stories their own parents told them of even hungrier times. The depression that hit the agricultural community during the early 1880’s drove many people away, not only to other parts of this country, but to other countries as well… to Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Many others, expert craftsmen of their times, took to the roads or went into other jobs that satisfied only their family’s hunger.
What stands as an emblem for the suffering of ordinary people then is the rioting that took place in Littleport and Ely after the Napoleonic wars. Fen-drainage did not fulfil expectations of plenty any more than the so-called ‘communication revolution’ through the use of computers has today relieved people from the drudgery of work as it was thought it might do – voracious employers have simple pocketed the proceeds of the changes in working practices and thrown workers out of properly paid work; in the 1880’s any benefit deriving from additional land for cultivation went into the pockets of landowners and farmers. Storey is of the opinion, which I share, that…
…to defend those who had the power to change things but didn’t is as near as one can get to condoning the acts of barbarity that were just as evil as those that packed Negroes into slave-ships or Jews into concentration camps. Landworkers were starved to death, they were beaten, and they too suffered the inhumanity of man to man.
In the early nineteenth century the death penalty was a routine form of punishment: ‘…hanging was the daily calculated risk that many starving people took to save not themselves but their children. Many felt that a quick death was as good as a certain slow one and stealing could only mean life or death…’ In Tory Britain, in the current absence of capital punishment, as a final act of despair, people throw themselves under trains, for instance. My own journey home has been disrupted thus three times in the last month or so.
Anger & Brain-washing
It’s true that the streets often seethe with the anger of ‘chartered’ (Blake’s word meaning ‘permitted’ by the Power Possessors) protest & demonstration but, with the mass of the population brainwashed by the media into blaming the poor for being lazy, the old for being old, the disabled for being shirkers, the coming revolution is postponed indefinitely and what ordinary anger there might be is calculatedly diverted towards ‘the enemy without’; for reasons that any thinking person finds it impossible to comprehend, ‘the enemy within’ (the Tory Party and hangers-on, the billionaires and the so-called ‘Upper Crust’) simply continues to wine and dine, laughing and joking at the plight of the dispossessed – observe their despicable antics in the House of Commons.
Anyway, Storey says…
Men who had fought at Waterloo were now beginning to wish they had died there. When they came home to the country they had fought for, they returned to an economic crisis which was more demoralizing than the battlefield. Thousands of men were out of work. Pockets remained empty. The price of food rose to a level that made it the exclusive right of the rich. Men who had been heroes were now reduced to the indignity of parish relief, of seeing their few pieces of furniture sold, and being turned out of their homes. Wages for those who could find work dropped, or at best stayed at the old rates…The only people who could afford the luxury of bread were the farmers who had made enough money to pay the miller who had been able to pay the farmer and so on, in one tight, unbreakable circle of ‘what we have we keep’.
By the spring of 1816 it was beginning to seem to agricultural labourers that their only recourse was revolution. But then, just as now, the problem was that of organisation – how to make the masses rise up and revolt against tyranny in an organised way? A strong leader often leads to an alternative despotism; a quiet, determined, principled leader, such as Jeremy Corbyn, has to be capable of weathering sustained abuse not only from the rich and influential but from his own party’s authoritarian wing, with its abject fear of freedom, whose members can only function under somebody who acts as a despot like the War Criminal Blair. How can one assume power without being corrupted by it?
By holding fast to Top Form 8 on the Enneagram which represents ‘leading from the rear’! But that’s another story…
Rioting & Sabotage
Otherwise undirected rioting and sabotage will become the order of the day. In 1816…
…trouble started to flare up in many parts of East Anglia, and in May rioting was reported in Bury, Southery, Brandon and Downham [seemingly such peaceful places nowadays…] By 22nd May the men of Littleport decided that the time had come for them to act. They met at ‘The Globe’ public house for their annual Benefit Club Meeting on the Wednesday evening and their talk quickly concentrated on recent events… If there was going to be an uprising they wanted to be part of it. In their eyes they had nothing to lose and a lot to gain. Most of the men had a few old scores to settle and in the grey, smoky atmosphere of the bar a deceptive flush of heroism must have brought a glow of colour back to their embittered faces.
Just such a warm glow of comradeship, the company of like-minded people with whom you would not mind being stranded on a desert island, comes over me when I join a big march in London. I know it well; it lasts a few days before it settles down quietly with the memory of all the marches I’ve taken part in since 1961.
Poverty & Deprivation under the Tories
Right now it seems that twenty million people in the UK are living in poverty according to a study detailing high levels of deprivation. Breadline Britain (by economist Stewart Lansley and academic Joanna Mack) shows that poverty has doubled since 1983 – and is set to get worse over the next five years. Thousands of face-to-face interviews done for the book reveal the desperate state in which many families live: one in three Britons is below an internationally accepted minimum living standard devised by the authors; three and a half million adults go hungry so they can feed their children; one in five children is in a house that is cold and damp; one in ten lacks warm clothes; gas and electricity prices have doubled over the last decade while average wages have fallen over the same period; 21% of people are living in debt and a third of people are unable to save any money at all.
The really awful thing is that whole generations are being denied opportunity. And over time this becomes the norm; it’s generally assumed that this is how things have to be otherwise they’d be different. Stewart Lansley points out that ‘poverty is driven by a false political ideology…’ and concludes that ‘…we need transformative politics of the type that we saw in post-war Britain’.
For ‘transformative politics’ read REVOLUTION. Back in 1816, Storey points out that…
…one person that they particularly wanted to get even with was a Mr. Henry Martin, one of the biggest farmers in the area. As a parish officer, he had provoked a great deal of hatred and hostility by declaring more than once that the meagre allowance made by the parish was more than enough for the miserable peasants. Flaunting his expensive taste in dress and wearing shirts for which he boastingly paid a guinea a time, he was fond of publicly declaring that the parish money could be better spent than providing the working class with beer and that if their children were hungry, it was entirely their own fault.
When the price of one of Mr. Martin’s shirts would have paid the low wages for three of the men he had sacked, it is easy to see why he was at the top of the list when the day of reckoning came. So, when the angry men of Littleport marched out of ‘The Globe’ to face their oppressors, Henry Martin was one man for whom death of any kind seemed a lenient sentence for his treatment of the poor. But having spent their Benefit Club money on a quart of ale to seal their resolution and on another to give them courage, their empty bellies soon got the better of their full heads and there was little discrimination about the property or persons that they attacked. Shop windows were smashed in and money demanded from the owners. Houses were ransacked and silver stolen. Furniture was hacked to pieces and food stolen from pantries. When Josiah Dewey, a retired farmer, refused to give the rioters what they wanted, they forced their way into his house and cleared the rooms of bed-linen, clocks, clothes, cutlery and a well-sharpened cleaver, which Thomas South, one of the ring-leaders, was to put to frightening use later that night. Every farmer was visited by the rioters and robbed of money and possessions and their families terrorized.
By the time the rioters reached Mr. Martin’s house they were drunk with their new-found power and easy victories. Martin, they chanted, would be hacked to pieces in the street. But the uproar had reached Martin long before his avengers and when they arrived he had slid silently off into safety, leaving his old grandmother, Rebecca Waddelow and a servant, to guard his house. There was an hysteria now in the rioters’ behaviour that no reasoning could subdue. They ransacked the house, chopped up every chair and piece of furniture they could find, searching angrily in every room and cupboard for the man they had come to kill.
At the vicarage, the Reverend Vachell defiantly stood with his loaded pistol and threatened to shoot the first man that put a foot on his property. What he did not know was that in a mob there is not always a ‘first man’ to do anything, it is often one uncontrollable sprawl of many men surging forward in one common cause. The threat of shooting them, coming from their vicar, incensed their minds and Vachell was knocked aside as the men noisily rampaged through the book-lined vicarage. In fact, the rioters were so busy smashing up the house that they overlooked the vicar and his family, who, in the dust and noise, quickly made their escape out of a back door. Free of the house and the men, they hurried to Ely where they roused the magistrates… to see what could be done. Vachell knew that Sir Henry Dudley had a buccaneering quality and a reputation that would frighten the rioters if only he would act. To begin with the two Ely magistrates must have listened incredulously as the Reverend Vachell related one episode after another…
At midnight, the rioters re-assembled at their headquarters, ‘The Globe’, and made their plans for the attack on Ely and, if necessary, on the cathedral itself. The hours before dawn would also give them time to collect a better arsenal of weapons, for it was now clear that they needed something more than the stolen cleaver and a few hefty clubs.
When the early mist of that May morning cleared there were more serious expressions of determination on the faces of the men who were now aware of their actions. For one thing they realized that after the havoc they had caused the night before it was too late to turn back. Anyone who had fire-arms or ammunition at home fetched them for the leaders to distribute among the men. The man who emerged as the ‘commander-in-chief’ of this make-shift army was John Dennis, at first a reluctant participant, but one who brought a much more sophisticated approach to the conflict. He took charge of the distribution of arms and shot and made sure that those who did not carry fire-arms at least had pitch-forks, eel-glaives or clubs. In addition to their individual weapons the men also had a ‘tank’, a very primitive one, but nevertheless ingenious and impressive-looking. They had stolen a farm cart and horses from one of the farmers and on the cart they had fixed four fowlers’ punt-guns. These muzzle-loaders were anything up to 10 feet long and fired a pound of shot that could kill at a distance of 150 yards. Their ‘tank’ ready for action, and their arms loaded, the men at last led the horses out of ‘The Globe’ yard and set out for Ely.
The frenzy of the previous night had spent itself. There was now no laughter, no banter and very little talking. The seriousness of their action and the possible consequences if things went wrong, were all too apparent. The chances were slim. The penalties were high. But again as Richard Rutter was to explain, ‘you may as well be hanged as starved’ to death. The Littleport men did not embark on the second part of their mission as a drunken mob. They remembered that they had not eaten for several days and, whatever the outcome of their action, they would pursue their defiant gesture to the palace doors at Ely.
The Reverend Metcalfe, forewarned of the invasion, had taken the precaution of sending word through to the garrison at Bury St. Edmunds. He wanted troops at the ready, on the outskirts of the city, to meet the trouble when it arrived. In the meantime, he rode out to meet the rioters – an action which needed no small ration of courage…
About 500 people gathered outside The White Hart Inn and Mr. Metcalfe was now joined by several other magistrates. He asked the men what they wanted. For a few moments the shouts and demands were no more than a babble of incoherent words until the ringleaders brought some kind of unison to their cries of ‘flour’ and ‘bread’. The magistrates were told how the men’s wives and families were starving, how on less than 8 shillings a week they couldn’t afford to buy even the basic foods at the present prices. They complained that when they asked for more money their masters would either not listen or blamed the Napoleonic Wars for the plight of the country. But that wasn’t good enough, they said, some of them had fought in the war for their country and they expected a living. They knew there was enough food if it was shared out properly and they were there to see that some of it came to them…
The magistrates of Ely invited a small committee into the ‘White Hart’ to talk quietly about
the men’s grievances. Typical divide & rule tactics. Eventually it was proclaimed that ‘The Magistrates agree, and do order, that the overseers shall pay to each family Two Shillings per Head per Week, when Flour is Half-a-crown a stone; such allowance to be raised in proportion when the price of flour is higher, and that the price of labour shall be Two Shillings a day, whether married or single and that the labourer shall be paid his full wages by the Farmer who hires him.’
The demonstrators were given free beer and told to go home. A ‘lunatic-fringe’ encouraged the rioters who remained to celebrate their victory by demanding free beer at every pub in Ely.
…pandemonium broke loose. Shops were smashed up and looted. Millers and bakers were beaten and robbed. Private householders were attacked…The Ely and Littleport labourers had been joined by agitators from other towns and they wanted much more than had been granted in the ‘White Hart’ agreement. The magistrates’ only hope was that their appeal for troops had been granted and that soon the army would ride in to restore order and discipline.
There was news that…
…a similar riot was still causing trouble at Downham and that other labourers were preparing to strike. Some of them may have believed, as they trudged home in the heroic and romantic haze of their fatigue, that they had in fact lit a flame in the heart of the Fens which would burn for a long time, that whatever happened now, things could never be as bad again.
No such luck. A detachment of the Royal Dragoons arrived, stimulating uncoordinated anger at the power of authority.
Prisoners should were tried at Special Assizes in Ely. A special Commission was hastily set up to hear the charges and the prisoners were sent for trial in June 1816. Storey highlights the absurd lengths the Power Possessors go to in order to drum up popular enthusiasm for what they hope will convince people they know best, to waste money that could be far more intelligently invested.
A great amount of pomp and ceremony preceded the proceedings and more money was spent on the pageantry, trumpeters, stewards and carriages for the bishop and judges than all the prisoners would have wanted to keep them for a year. It is a strange paradox of human nature and our society that we are always much more willing to spend money on killing people than saving them.
On the morning of the first day of the trial, the judges were the guests of the Bishop of Ely for breakfast and then accompanied him, with several other dignitaries, to the cathedral for a special service. After an anthem, which had also been specially written for the occasion, the Reverend Sir Henry Bate Dudley himself preached a sermon, taking for his text a phrase from the First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to Timothy, Chapter One, Verse Nine: ‘… the law is not made for the righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient…’
Without the ‘laws’ of cricket, the game would not be possible; if people drove vehicles just where they wanted roads would be somewhat chaotic; intelligent laws in general are invented in order to oil the works. But unnecessary laws are invented, not by the righteous but by the Power Possessors in order to keep us under control. The unwritten ‘law’ that people must put up with their lot or face the consequences of a determined challenge needs spelling out and proclaiming from the steps of the townhall in order for it to be obvious that it is inequitable. Kant proposes a different definition: ‘The touchstone of all those decisions that may be made into law for a people lies in this question: Could a people impose such a law upon itself?’
After their prayers the commission made its way through the streets lined with soldiers armed with bayonets. Crowds gathered behind the soldiers and looked on silently as the wealthy procession went by.
It appears that while
…the well-fed and overweight Bishop was at his prayers his coach had been tampered with by some Fenmen…; the bishop … made heavy work of climbing into his carriage. With an autocratic shout he ordered his coachman to drive on and at that crucial moment, when dignity was so necessary for him, one of the wheels came off… There was no laughing or jeering from the crowd; only their dry, narrow smiles and piercing, revengeful eyes, following the carriage [after the wheel had been fixed] until it was out of sight. The pompous proceedings at Ely would have been laughable had they not been so tragic and panic-stricken.
Only a few prisoners were allowed to speak in their own defence. The judge told them that their actions had nothing to do with poor living standards. Twenty-four were condemned to death, some were to be transported for life, some were to be transported for limited periods while others were simply jailed in Ely. During the rumpus that ensued the judge threatened to hang a few more unless they cleared the court.
As a sop to the populace and to keep them quiet, nineteen of those sentenced to death were reprieved but transported for life to Botany Bay. While in a typically underhand kind of way, without reason, those who had only been sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in Ely were transported for seven years without being allowed to say good-bye to their families.
The judges wanted to underline the power of the Church and State by making the hangings something to remember. They wanted to make it clear that any further thoughts of an uprising would only send more people to their deaths.
On Friday, 28th June 1816 … the procession to the place of execution took over an hour to pass and was made up of nearly 300 ‘privileged persons’ willing to add their support to this showy example of ‘justice’. A crowd of several hundred onlookers was there to get the message – men from Ely, Littleport, Bury, Southery, Downham, Soham, March and Chatteris… This was the day when hundreds of Fenmen vowed never to forgive either of those two powers who had been party to these deaths.
This in their memory…
Not So Much Forgiven But Completely Forgotten
These days the Power Possessors have managed to distract our attention from the enemy within by providing a dose of Bread and Circuitry and the media daily pretends that everything is fine.
Rise up, England! You’ve nothing to lose but your TV sets and your shopping trolleys.
Things Seem Separate but in fact Everything is Connected
While I was thinking about all this I re-read Venetian Blinds, a great novel by Ethel Mannin (1933), for the third or fourth time since I first read it around 1954. I bought it in Brady’s Arcade in Kingston-on-Thames (long gone probably!) and was captivated by it; it remains as fresh now as it did then. Stephen Pendrick is the central character; he inhabits the same kind of suburban area that I grew up in though I lived in the new outer suburbs of London in Worcester Park whereas he lived in various places around Earlsfield on the line between Worcester Park and Waterloo.
The watercress beds by the River Wandle where the Pendricks moved from Tooting! – I remember them so well staring out from the train as it gathered speed from Wimbledon to Earlsfield; to the right was a very large dump that smoked, with hot ashes I always assumed, during the early morning rush hour and, much lower down, the watercress beds, the river and a band of Victorian houses I used to wonder what it was like to live in.
It’s now a dreadful industrial estate. If there’s anybody still living since the war in the old houses by the side of the Wandle they’ll be full of regret – as full as I am. They’d be in their 80’s or 90’s!
“It’s lovely and open here. As good as being in the country, I always say.” That’s what the Pendrick’s neighbour Mrs Mord said. It was how I saw the place for many years.
Stephen Pendrick was greatly influenced by the Leider family, romantic & revolutionary Germans whose life was greatly disturbed by the 1st World War and with whom Stephen lost touch though they always stayed in his mind.
Reading Venetian Blinds again at this moment seemed to fit rather neatly with the first part of this Glob.
[Stephen] thought a lot about what Fritz said about it being all wrong that there should be rich and poor, and he, too, began to think that it would be fine if it could all be different, if as in the Rubaiyat which Carl Leider was so fond of quoting it could be possible to reshape the sorry scheme of things and mould it nearer to the heart’s desire; through a mighty revolution which would sweep all the bad things away, so that there were no more slums, no more people sleeping on the Thames Embankment at nights because they had nowhere else to go, like Jack London wrote about, no more people singing in the streets for money because there was no work for them, no more processions of unemployed. He had not thought about these things before, but now his waking mind was full of them, and he told Fritz that he agreed with him about the injustice of ‘the existing social system’, and Fritz said that was splendid and that it meant that Stephen was a Socialist, and that he, Fritz, had made a convert to the Cause, and now Stephen must make a convert, because that was the way to help, everybody doing their bit, and he wrote out the words of the Red Flag for Stephen and lent him Richard Whiteing’s Number Five John Street, and Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets, Gissing’s Odd Women, and The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, Robert Blatchford’s Merrie England, Somerset Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth, William Morris’s News from Nowhere. He read them all, and thought about them, and was excited and indignant, and filled with pity and anger and dismay – burned in short, with that pure name of youth looking upon the world and seeing for the first time the injustice and suffering which is part of the social system humanity has devised for itself.
Processions of unemployed with their banner, ‘We Want Work’, and singing some dismal song, frequently turned into Ledstock Street on Sunday mornings – they were more depressing than the Salvation Army, Mrs. Pendrick declared. Fritz said that one day there would be a revolution, for work is the right to live, and that is Man’s first right.
He was fond of quoting John Ball’s famous speech at the time of the Peasant Revolt, “Good people, things will never go well in England so long as goods be not in common, and so long as there be villains and gentlemen. By what right are they whom we call lords greater folk than we? On what grounds have they deserved it? Why do they hold us in serfage? If we all came of the same father and mother, of Adam and Eve, how can they say or prove that they are better than we, if it be not that they make us gain for them by our toil what they spend in their pride? … It is of us and our toil that these men hold their state.”
Stephen looked up Green’s History at the Leiders’ house and copied out the speech in its entirety, and from doing that he discovered that history was not dead facts and figures as it was made to seem at school, but a living saga of human struggle. Swept by a youthful Socialist fire he realised that he wanted to read of the life of the common people from the earliest times, he wanted to know about the Industrial Revolution and how it affected the workers, and how it connected with life at the present day, and reading history for the sake of all this, he became interested in history generally; it fascinated him; he could not understand anyone not wanting to read history. Gradually he wanted to have books of his own. One day, he thought, he would have a fine library like the Leiders had; he wanted to read history, sociology, poetry. In this way, one horizon after another the Leider’s opened up for him.
One day, I suppose I thought, I will have the fine library I celebrate in my ROOM books.
The prison doors clang shut on Stephen’s life and he never achieves the promise of this early revolutionary spirit. But he keeps the memory of life in the Leider’s household fresh in his mind; towards the end of the novel, after various doomed relationships, he reflects on how things might have been.
He had never forgotten how Carl Leider… had talked of Heidelberg in apple-blossom time, of the mountains of the Tyrol, and of lying naked in the sun; and there was that absurd lovely dream of buying a Schloss on the Rhine and living there happily ever after; they were to become Wander-vogel and take ruck-sacks, he recalled, and Leitchen [a Beatrice-figure to Stephen] was to bring her mandolin, and they were to go everywhere; and there was that song they had sung that somehow had the mountains in it, and laughter, and music under trees, and swimming in blue lakes, all romance and adventure, and not caring about to-morrow, and something else, which as a boy he hadn’t been able to define, but which he now knew to be a nostalgia for lost worlds, a clinging to dreams which had no chance of realisation.
The closest Stephen got to such dreams was to write about the pleasures of distant lands in travel brochures which is one of the things he was employed to do.
Stephen’s sister, Elsie, married a very rich older man, being pregnant by him, with whom it seemed likely that she would be able to go all over the world. The irony of life was not lost on Stephen.
It was queer how life worked out, he thought; queer to think that Elsie, to whom beauty meant nothing, and for whom the horizon held nothing but a possible hat-shop or smart restaurant, was to have without particularly wanting it all that he had wanted so much and dreamed of for so long.
Not for him the thrill of boat-trains, cross-Channel steamers, the smell of coffee and garlic and French cigarettes at the Gare du Nord, which, Bowden [his work-colleague] said, was one of the best smells in the world; not for him the night-journey, thundering South, with the sunrise over Avignon and the first smell and glimpse of the South, which Bowden declared to be one of the great excitements of life; not for him the glamour of coming into strange ports, and the journeyings on to new adventure, new experiences, new sights and sounds and smells and colours, as he had so glowingly written of it in the Tendall travel booklets.
For him the walk to the station in the morning and home again at night; strap-hanging in crowded trains, being shut up in an office all day till whatever sun there was went down, day after day. For him as for thousands, as for hundreds of thousands, two weeks out of every fifty-two, three at most, in which to do as he liked – for the rest, the slave of a job, doing nothing that he wanted to do, nothing that really mattered to him, nothing creative, just so many hours per day, per week, in an office for the sake of at first a weekly wage, and then the dignity of a monthly salary.
He might break away, of course; he might revolt and ‘walk out into the sun’ – wasn’t that what they called it? In books people sometimes did it; but not in real life; not when you were married, not if you were just an ordinary person like Stephen Pendrick.
He might go abroad without Alice for his annual holiday, since she refused to leave England. But – she was his wife; it would break her heart; ordinary decent people didn’t do things like that; if their wives refused to travel they just sighed and said “Very well, dear,” and went on going to Bexhill or Broadstairs or Torquay, or wherever it was, for the rest of their lives, and in time learned to forget that they had ever wanted anything more colourful and exciting.
Stuck in the back office of the Westminster Bank in Cheapside in 1963, I remember leaning forward to Dave Adams who sat opposite me and saying quietly, “In a moment I’m going to stand up on my desk and yell WAKE UP, ALL YOU BASTARDS!” So convincing was my threat that he immediately got up and went to the washroom, not to re-appear for another 15 minutes.
Even when I escaped the daily ‘strap-hanging in crowded trains’ by breaking away from office life to become a teacher, I would say to my dear friend Ann, “In a moment I shall climb out of this window and you’ll never see me again…” I think she half-believed I might.
The title Venetian Blinds is meant to represent middle class achievement but the novel might just as well have been called ‘Resignation’. Arthur Pendrick, Stephen’s father, did ‘not ask much of life’ and Stephen follows in his footsteps. Not asking much of life…
I don’t think I’ve ever asked much of life: books up on bookshelves in alphabetical order, music, bonfires, books to make notes in, rummaging in the mind, starlight & sunsets, flights of birds, the same pictures on the walls in the same places for years & years, log-fires, the warmth of a woman’s embrace, a lawn with well-defined stripes on which to sit on a deckchair in summer sunlight, beginnings and endings – that’s not much to ask…
Arthur Pendrick ‘…was not much concerned with what folks might think so that he wore his clothes till they were a ‘disgrace’ and never looked smart as [his wife’s] sister’s husbands did and often she must remind him to shave and get his hair cut…’ Oh, Arthur Pendrick, the very model of existence.
What the Power Possessors Rely On
While they fill their pointless lives with wining & dining and creating lucrative contacts and ‘getting on’ and occupying their sad mansions, the Power Possessors rely on the fact that ordinary people do not ask much of life, being too busy scraping a living to ask the right questions about their nefarious activities.
And then one asks – why should anybody ask much of life? What does it profit anybody to possess more than they absolutely need?
Come the Revolution, I still like to think I’d be up there on the barricades! Maybe we could organise a peaceful one – at my age that might be desirable…