Some time ago an article appeared in these columns; it was called “In the Front Line.” It was a description of working-class life in one of the great industrial belts of Britain. The story was one of poverty and drabness, but the writer does not think he exaggerated the grimness of the scene, nor the sordid existence of the people.
Here is the other side of the picture.
It is a pretty picture—at least, nature has done its best to please the human eye. It is a place not very far from the Metropolis, and in the days of peace the Mecca of many a trip by working folk in search of a day’s fresh air.
To-day the small town has swollen to almost twice its former size. Crowded trains draw out of its station early every morning, taking with them hundreds of men and women, many still “nodding” through lack of sleep. Their jobs are in London, but they have come here in search of safety in the night. To them, “Pretty-town,” as you may call it, means just a bed away from the bombs. When they come home in the evening they are usually far too tired to do much else than have their supper and go to bed. The week-end is the long-awaited chance for a “lay-in,” and so the charm and soothing quiet of the country-side is lost to them.
Then there are the official evacuees. Women with their offspring, thousands of them, were literally dumped upon the place with little thought of caring for them once they had got here; for the problems in accommodation, food and other items of welfare.
Of course, these evacuees belong to the working class; the wealthy do not have to rely on the tender mercies of officialdom to provide refuge for their wives and children.
It is easy enough to distinguish this human flotsam; all are shabbily dressed, and can often be seen wandering about the main streets aimlessly. In this town, where ”cleanliness and godliness” are the twin virtues, a slovenly appearance causes much comment, but these intolerant disciples of Jesus should bear in mind that the slums of London’s dockland are not good training ground for clean habits. And the local authorities do nothing to encourage self-care; they have shown their regard by putting large numbers into houses long since condemned, where they are herded five and six persons to a room.
Others are billeted on the local working class, who live mostly in small council houses dotted around the outskirts. There is no use in glossing over the hostility which exists between “guests” and “hosts”—it is deep-rooted, and, even if the differences in outlook and up-bringing could be overcome, there still remains the problem of squeezing two families into the narrow walls within which it is difficult enough for one average-sized household to move.
But all these are the small fry among God’s children. Let us leave them and follow the stream of motor-cars continually passing to and fro the centre of this little city. Their destination is a different quarter in the neighbourhood, the wooded hills which overlook the valley like sentinels of nature. Climb up the leafy avenues, and, when you can turn your gaze from the colourful view of the many-coloured carpet of fields below, peer through the long line of trees and the high hedge rows beyond.
Here, discreetly hidden from all but very prying eyes, is the heritage of England.
Often you will not even then be able to see the abode of the fortunate owner, so spacious are the grounds, the vast stretches of carefully tended lawn, of elaborately planned gardens, the miniature forests.
No fancy names on wooden boards will give you any due as to whom you are seeking; the “Mon Abri’s,” and such-like products of fanciful minds, are left to the envious but impotent hangers-on, the self-styled middle-class.
Coming from the poorer quarters of the town, with its crowded streets and shops, the contrast is startling. Such is the spacious comfort in which this elite has its being, that the passer-by, used to the noise and jostling of working-class existence, may be left with a curious impression of desolation. Never do you hear the noise of children playing, certainly not evacuees; the notion that you are in a country at war, ”fighting for its life,” seems fantastic.
Occasionally a car speeds up the drive and into the buildings beyond. You get a brief glimpse of the occupants, quite ordinary looking persons they appear, and then they are gone, as aloof as their impressive habitation.
It is quite impossible to associate what you see here with the urgent problems which you are told are facing the country to-day.
Lack of food, shortage of man-power, people without homes—all these and a multitude of other difficulties may be agitating your mind, making you a chronic victim of anxiety and fear (the deadliest foes of happiness), but here everything speaks of comfort, of leisure, a sense of economic security that has no inkling of the ceaseless struggle for existence that goes on below.
Vats of boiling steel, over which men, sweating though stripped to the waist, are standing, shaping the metal; miners hacking their way along the labyrinth, hundreds of feet below ground; women stumbling home through the black-out after a long day of machine tending; screaming sirens and a mass of human bodies huddled together in filthy basements—merely the sinister shadows of another world.
For you, food is a “munition of war,” to be obtained by scrambling, queueing, begging the shop-keeper of regretfully paying double the price you can afford. It is a fuel for vitals which have been emptied by the day’s strenuous labour. But to this other class such concern for food is unknown. Never are they seen at the shops lining up for goods in short supply, war-time restrictions appear to hold no terrors for them. And is it possible to imagine their dining-tables served with a small piece of cheese and a pat of margarine by the butler (“three servants kept in pantry ”— recent advert.)?
To what magic does this class owe its favoured living—what remarkable gifts of mind and body assure them a social and economic standing quite inconceivable by the average working-class brain?
The clue can often be found in the City of London, the “richest square mile in the world.” Stacked in the vaults of banking firms or in the offices of the big joint-stock companies are the documents that “prove,” according to law, the right of this privileged minority to possess and use the best in life which the productive resources and human labour can offer. Mere pieces of paper, but backed by the entire force of the State—what gangster ever had better protection? Not that these people are gangsters—they are the most law-abiding citizens to be found anywhere.
Those documents relate to copper mines in Rhodesia, to tea plantations in India, the cotton mills of Lancashire, to the stock yards in the Argentine; in every corner of the British Empire and beyond are to be found the well-shaped predatory fingers of the richest ruling-class of to-day.
Property that is never seen—labour-power by the million, black, brown and white, pay the tribute which enables these persons in the Home Counties of England to live in splendour and seclusion.
You may well ask: What active share do this class take in this process of wealth-production? The answer is, None. Their sons go to the public school and universities, and from there, if minded, for “public duties,” fill the benches of the Conservative parties in Parliament or other public bodies. Here their intellectual and socially useful qualities can and have been judged. Others have gone into the diplomatic service; their record is now being expunged by bombs and guns. Many others, more discreet, keep an eye on the source of their incomes by “sitting” on the boards of numerous undertakings as “directors.” If you go to the local railway station here at an early hour in the afternoon, you will see some of these “captains of industry” alighting from a London train and hurrying to their waiting automobile—surely an early hour for leaving the factory in these days of twenty-four hour shifts? You are mistaken, reader; these gentlemen are “somebodies” in the “City.”
Many have, of course, joined the armed forces; they have the consolation of knowing that they are defending a real “stake in the country,” not an imaginary one. In this connection it is worth noting that the local working-class have a very strongly developed sense of property: It is their house and their garden, whereas a few weeks without payment of rent would quickly put an end to this hallucination. Admittedly, rents are low compared with towns, but so are wages—the capitalist class know how to even things up.
It is the rule for workers to model their outlook on that of their masters; ”Pretty-town” is no exception. The capitalist caricature of the old manorial system poisons the whole locality with its prejudices and reactionary foibles. Jews (of the poorer type) and revolutionaries are their pet aversions; a former town clerk is now imprisoned as a fascist.
Fortunately for the prospects of Socialism, these “pocket boroughs” can have little influence on the march of ideas, otherwise the future of mankind would indeed look gloomy.