1960s >> 1964 >> no-717-may-1964

Behind the Dry Statistics

If there is one person I would very much like to meet, it is the Registrar General.

To most people, I suspect, the statistics which are regularly sucked into Somerset House, to be whirled around there until they come out in the Registrar General’s report, are the dullest things on earth. Yet in fact those statistics can tell a vital, exciting—and sometimes depressing—story of how we live, work, get married, bear children, fall ill and die. What effect, I wander do they have upon the Registrar General?

Does he fume, after reporting the latest lung cancer deaths, at advertisments which say that the only thing a cigarette will give a man is satisfaction—and a nuzzling from a glamorous girl? Does he shake his head over the “with it” younger marriages, and sigh at the shocks and disappointments which the future must hold for so many tender, starry-eyed kids?

What, I should like to know, did he think of the suicide figures in his last report? In the seven Metropolitan boroughs which have a high suicide rate there are also a lot of what are officially called “one person households,” although you and I would call them bed-sitters. Now these two facts may be unconnected; it may be a coincidence that people who live in bed-sitters in areas like Chelsea, Holborn and Hampstead are more likely to put an end to their life than other people. But to anyone who has ever been the person in the “one person household” it must be likely that the opposite is true.

For a number of years I lived in a house in Ealing which was split up into bedsitters. From what I remember of that place, I would never be surprised to hear that one of its tenants had added himself to the Registrar General’s suicide figures. The house was a big, heavy square place with a crumbling, almost paintless, exterior. The hall was moderately pleasant, with what could have been a graceful staircase, but the higher up the stairs you went the darker, the mustier and the more depressing it became. Over everything there was the dead hand of neglect and the hopelessness of a last refuge. Apart from myself and one young Irish girl, the people who lived there were middle aged.

The house was owned by Mrs. Q., an old lady who lived in another, larger, smarter house in the same road where she collected our rents and distributed the weekly parcels of laundry. 1 soon discovered that it was advisable to settle with Mrs. Q., on a Saturday morning; she was fond of her Friday evening glass of port and when she had had too much she be came embarrassingly voluble and difficult to get away from.

Apart from this, Mrs. Q. did not worry her tenants. If she had any complaints about us she would leave querulous notes, written in her shaky hand on ragged pieces of brown paper, on the hallstand. “Will the tenant who is leaving an electricity fire on all days. . . .’’or “One tenant is leaving the bath dirty afterwards. . . .  (I could plead not guilty to this last complaint with an easy conscience—I never managed to persuade the bathroom geyser to work and, after wrestling with it for about a quarter of an hour, used to endure a stand up cold both while the geyser, I am sure, grinned at me from its corroded corner).

There was one room, on the top floor, which Mrs. Q. always kept padlocked. One day I noticed that the padlock was hanging open on the hasp and, unable to resist it, I crept through the doorway. Thick dust was everywhere, over the pieces of furniture and bric-a-brac which lay around. The room was suffused with the odour of decay. On a table was some delicate glassware and a toilet set of solid silver, unused in its hide case. There was also a yellowed picture of Mrs. Q. when she was a young girl, standing beside a stern, upright man with forbidding moustaches and black eyes. Somewhere beneath the rot and the dust there was, I knew, a lot of history in that room—a history of a girlhood which ended to the throb of gunfire and the crunching soldiers’ feet and the collapse of an era. But it suddenly seemed a pity to disturb it and, anyway, Mrs. Q. might come up and catch me. So I came out.

The other tenants, if I may say so, were a curious lot. In the street they were unexceptionally respectable—all collar and tie and sober trilby. But they had some queer ways and not the queerest was their reluctance to come face to face with you in the house. My room was on the third floor and often, as I came downstairs, 1 would see a door on a landing below me open, only to close again as whoever was behind it realised that someone was coming downstairs. I wondered, at first, what it was that made them so afraid to meet each others’ eye indoors—in the street they usually smiled and said hello. But I stopped asking myself that question when I found that I had caught the habit. In the end I was going to ridiculous lengths to avoid meeting my fellow tenants.

Those people were very much alone and by all their standards good job, friends,  marriage they were failures. But they had to put up a show of being busy, wanted. One of them had this so badly that he could not walk down the street without stopping every few seconds to look into his inside pocket, or peer down to see whether his shoelace was undone, or stare up at a passing aeroplane. Perhaps he really had nothing to do and nowhere to go, but the last thing he wanted anyone to think was that he was walking aimlessly down the street.

Some of the tenants used to play the same sort of game in the local Joe Lyons, sitting all evening over the same cup of tea, looking expectantly around them, trying to appear as if they were waiting for someone. But nobody ever came and when the teashop closed they went back to Mrs. Q.’s dismal gas rings.

It was especially bad for them at the weekend and during holidays. Christmas, which they presumably all believed to be a festival of warm congregation, must have been a torture for them. They must have welcomed the return to work, to release them from the agonies of leisure.

Perhaps that house has imprinted too lasting an impression on me. I read T. S. Eliot:

For I have known them all already,
known them all—
Have known the evening, mornings,
afternoons.
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

And again:-

One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

and I am back in the brown walls and the smell of dust, among those miserable, unwanted people who were afraid to face even themselves with their own problems. They sat waiting for them to disappear in the steam of the teashop or tried to hide them in the shadows which Mrs. Q.’s low wattage lamps threw among the junk shop furniture in their rooms. But the problems stayed and were always there to greet them when they came back from Lyons or from the walk around the Common.

Most people, I suspect again, will think that we are over simplifying when we say that Socialism will end such problems. Loneliness, failure, suicide—these, they think, are personal matters with no relation to society at large. But in this they are wrong and the Registrar General’s figures say that they are.

Capitalism today dominates our lives For its own needs it has erected enormous cities, concentrating its means of production and administration into great ugly, airless wedges of bricks and mortar and cramming its hapless peoples into these deserts. It has no interest in these people except when they are working or when they are threatening the smooth profitability of the system by falling ill or by breaking its laws—or perhaps by committing suicide. As long as we turn up for the stint at the bench, or at the desk, capitalism is satisfied. The beauty—if that is the word—of capitalism is that our masters only buy our ability to work, and that for only a certain time. For the rest, nobody need care. Our private life is our own; and while this may have its advantages, in some ways our lives are perhaps too much our own, perhaps too private. Wedged in our own little respectable, private life, we can also be desperately lonely in a city breathing ten million people.

Capitalism has raised respectability—temperance, orthodoxy, subservience—onto a pedestal and it has glorified prosperity. For so many people the ultimate degradation is to become poor, to lose what they call class, to be looked down upon. They struggle to be respectable citizens and to hide their true poverty under their mediocrity. They struggle like this in their semi-detachcd villas on the garden estates. They struggle in the flats and the prefabs and they struggle, too, in the seedy bed-sitters. They are fighting losing battles.

Perhaps it could happen one Sunday afternoon in early Spring, with the sky grey and cold and no leaves yet upon the trees. It has been a long fight, this struggle to appear respectable, occupied, wanted; you have not given up even in the teashop, even under the dull lamp in your room. But this afternoon, somehow, it is all too much. Your head aches. The hot tea is sharp and stale and lies queasily in your stomach. There is no promise anywhere, only tomorrow and tomorrow when you are released back into the office, into the filing and the endless shuffling of papers.

You leave the table and walk in a dream across the Common to the grim house, to the musty carpets, the brown doors and your silent, waiting room. You stand with your back against the door and contemplate the monster of your own reality, squatting in every shadow thrown by the glimmering bulb. Suddenly it is all clear. There is no more need to pretend and it is such a relief. The monster emerges from the shadows and you greet him now because he is a friend. There is nothing left for it but to lock the door, stuff up the keyhole and the cracks around the window, turn on the gas and settle into Mrs. Q.’s broken chair waiting to become another digit in the periodical returns of the Registrar General.

Ivan