Short Story: A 1932 Memory
Tired of the gloomy public library and its shabbily dressed habitués vainly seeking employment or feverishly struggling for news of the latest racing results, I wondered what I should do next. I went some distance along the main road and a Lyons tea shop with its stereotyped white and gold front—unimaginatively the same in Camberwell, Streatham, Balham, Poplar, Brighton, or wherever the octopus has extended its suckers— attracted me; at least the marble walls, glass tables and not-so-shabby public were an improvement, and I sat down, and awaited a cup of tea.
A man, old in experience, but still young in outlook, entered and sat opposite and ventured a remark on the weather. Another commonplace or two, and then he observed that the weather was really of not much importance; the economic difficulties were what mattered most. I could only agree and confided that I myself had been sacked with a large number of other employees about six months ago by a prosperous rubber company.
“You don’t know what to do these days,” he said. “When I was young you could try your luck abroad, but to-day it’s the same everywhere; Australia has its big unemployment problem. I have been in many parts of the world and carried on businesses, but it’s no good leaving this country nowadays.”
He then told me he was in the bakery business and had come over from West London to collect a little account from one of his customers.
“It must be a large business,” I said, “ if you have customers in this neighbourhood.”
“No, it isn’t that,” he replied, ” the customer moved here.”
“Not the most pleasant of occupations endeavouring to get people to pay their debts,” I observed.
“Well,” he said, “there is nothing in it when you get used to it. In a case of genuine hardship we make all the allowance we can, but if we are sure a man has the money and is being obstinate, we serve a summons. Of course, it must be very hard for all those people thrown out of work by the large companies.”
“Well,” I said, “ the large combine companies don’t think much about their employees; from their point of view it is merely a costing operation.”
“Yes, but I don’t think it helps them much,” he said.
“Why not? ” was my answer. ” They make a big saving in labour costs and are able to entrench themselves and get an even bigger hold on the market.”
As a man who had been in business ventures himself, he was bound to agree, and could only add, “Well, if they continue throwing men out of work it will turn them into Socialists. And what do you think the small business man who goes under in the struggle is going to do? You know, I think it really accounts for these motor bandits.”
I told him that was my opinion, too. I might also have said that the capitalist, whether on the rocks, or secure behind the fortress of profits, bombs, bayonets, poison gas—real or vocal—is just the same and will stick at nothing to gain his ends—a fact which unemployed demonstrators and rioters might learn with advantage. What I did say, however, was that probably the hardship endured by those out of work also accounted for the increasing number of suicides.
“Oh, don’t speak of suicides,” he said, seemingly anxious to dismiss the subject, and giving an order for a second cup of tea. It was difficult not to have the suspicion that one of his hard-pressed debtors, or an employee he had dismissed had thus found a solution, “whilst of unsound mind,” to the hopeless struggle for existence. At any rate, with that remark the subject of economics dropped and this journal is uninterested in what followed.
A point which the writer would like to emphasise, however, is that the small capitalist with whom he had been in conversation was sufficiently thoughtful and understanding to perceive the inherent tendencies and consequences of capitalism, which translated into reality for the working class mean abominable conditions of living.
Monopolisation of the ownership of the bulk of the means of production by a few giant organisations is proceeding apace, and the continual reorganisation, rationalisation, and use of more intricate and labour-saving machinery which the capital resources of these organisations enable them to buy, must mean also, amid the overabundance of wealth and luxury which the working class have produced, a tendency for growing numbers of this class to be struggling to live on the dole and living in conditions of abject poverty.
The application of the only remedy for the workers—Socialism—will result from their own effort alone, and we urge them to do the little brain work necessary to understand the nature of their class enslavement. When they have done that, no force on earth will prevent them establishing a society wherein a condition of things characterised by sanity will be enjoyed by everyone.
G. M. A.