1960s >> 1966 >> no-743-july-1966

The Passing Show: Not So Different Now

There is a romantic concept of Ancient Rome, which no doubt the Hollywood spectaculars have helped to keep going. It is a concept of universal grace, space, cleanliness and light. And like so many popular notions, it is wrong.

Oh yes, there were those sumptuous mansions of which we’ve heard so much, but they were for the rich. In Trajan’s time these Domus, as they were called, numbered about 1,800 only, compared with more than 46,000 Insulae — the tenements and apartment blocks of the period. Needless to say the insulae were the homes of the poor, who clung to a crowded precarious existence in their miserable rooms heaped floor upon floor.

Precarious indeed! For these slums were simply flung up by speculative jerry builders (yes, they had them even then) and had a tiresome habit of falling down; or because of their construction, overcrowding and lack of a proper water supply they would often burst into flames and burn to the ground in next to no time.

If you want to read more about this there are plenty of books about, of course, and one particularly fascinating little work, Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jerome Carcopino (Penguin Books 12/6d.). But for the time being let’s come up to date and consider a report in The Times of June 2. From their Rome correspondent comes the news that “about half the porters in Rome apartment buildings are unhappy about their own living accommodation on the grounds that their rooms are dark, damp, cold, too small, or lacking a properly equipped bathroom.”

The report goes on to tell of the porters and their families living “uncomfortably” (a masterpiece of snobbish understatement) in rooms which in many cases are literally holes in the ground. Apparently about a third of them live in this way, even in many of the newer blocks, and more than 80 per cent have no bathroom. Half the places checked were damp; about 40 per cent had no heating and little light.

Now this report does not deal with the general housing picture in Rome, but it is well known that there are plenty of slums there, just like big towns in other parts of the world. And to read it one is tempted to make a brief comparison with the days of Claudius, Nero and Trajan, and ask whether we’ve really any cause for satisfaction. Indeed we have not! Unlike those, days, the modem means of wealth production make it possible to build homes of quality and beauty with an ease that the ancient Romans could not have contemplated in their wildest dreams—though they did some pretty amazing things themselves at times. Yet still we have to put up with third-rate shoddy dwellings and worse, in Rome and elsewhere. Slums fell down in Trajan’s time and they do so today; the estimated average rate of collapse is one every day in Manchester, for example.

Private property society has always meant a housing problem for the majority, but the contradiction of it has never been so blatant as in 20th century capitalism. It stares you in the face—open your eyes and see it.

Titbits on the seamen’s strike 
Labour M.P. Woodrow Wyatt is nothing if not rich, and inconsistent. A few months ago in the Daily Mirror he attacked the railmen who were about to strike and told them that their average, earnings of about £17 a week (including quite a bit of overtime) were “not bad, not bad at all.” But something has happened since .then, because here we have Mr. Wyatt supporting the striking seamen as a “special case” and using such language as “monstrously underpaid” too (Guardian, 23.5.66).

Now there may be a number of reasons for Mr. Wyatt’s apparent change of attitude. Perhaps, like most politicians, he keeps his ear to the ground and is aware of the fair amount of public sympathy which the seamen have for their stand (not so the railmen, though). Then again, despite severe competition, shipping is still vital to the capitalist class in its daily trading, and perhaps here is a glimpse of the reason for Mr. Wyatt’s seeming about-face. He thinks that to grant the seamen’s claim would force the ship-owners to be more efficient. No particular love for the seamen. Just good solid concern for British capitalism’s interests at home and abroad.

Shortly after that the Government declared a State of Emergency and put the necessary measures before Parliament. Did you read how wholeheartedly they were supported by the Conservative Opposition? “Chivalrously, generously, and not in any carping spirit,” as Mr. Quintin Hogg said? Astounding, isn’t it, how readily both sides drop their masks of enmity, close ranks and present a solid front when the crises of capitalism demand.

And, of course, the smug, priggish, condescending Guardian of May 19 wagged its snobbish editorial finger at the strikers and called their claim “simply inadmissable”. The usual nonsense was talked about “harm to the country” and a sly attempt made to isolate the seamen from the rest of the T.U. movement by suggesting that they would not “want to see the country suffer so that the seamen can get a rise of 17 per cent.”

In its attitude to this strike The Guardian has run true to form. Even if it concedes that the strikers have a grievance it always opposes their militancy, just like the rest of the Press. What a good job workers don’t always take the newspapers loo seriously.

Education—Words and Deeds
Just how pathetically naive can a rank-and-file Labourite get? On May 22 the annual conference of Labour Women at Blackpool heard Mrs. Anne Gibson attack Labour M.P’s for sending their children to private schools when comprehensive schools were advocated by their party. She accused them of “extending class distinction” in this way and added that:—

  . . . they were not only helping to maintain class distinction but also buying better jobs for their children. How could those in the Labour Party expect others to support the State education scheme if Labour supporters sent their children to private schools? (Guardian, 23.5.66).

Now there has been a bit of a rumpus in the past year or two about comprehensive schooling, and in her outburst Mrs. Gibson has hit a very interesting nail on the head. Her Party has extolled the system as “equal opportunity for every child,” but most of those M.P’s who can afford it make sure their children don’t get within a mile of a comprehensive school. They are under no illusions about the comparative standards and advantages, and they know that if they want the best for their children they have got to pay for it.

It’s all part of the general hypocrisy of capitalism in which the Labour Party wallows, and on a par with an incomes policy side by side with nice fat increases in M.P’s salaries and a £15,000 a year Prices and Incomes Board chairman. But dare we think that perhaps Mrs. Gibson is not so sure herself of the “advantages” of comprehensive education? Otherwise why so much fuss just because a few of her Party’s M.P’s decide to try something else for their own kids?


  • “The Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 . . . is . . . a thoroughly useful Act providing for the maintenance of order and discipline in merchant ships” (Guardian, 12.8.60. On the unofficial seamen’s strike).
  • “Who, anyway, could object if the enquiry (into seamen’s conditions) ended with the replacement, by something better and more realistic, of the Merchant Shipping ’ Act of 1894?” (Guardian, 16.5.66. On the official seamen’s strike).
  • “Unfair and unwelcome though death duties may be, it could be hundreds of years at the present rate before the average peer actually has to work for a living” (René Lecler on The Peers, Weekend Telegraph, 13.5.66).
  • “Peers just want to make money like everyone else . . (Lord Bath, interviewed in Weekend Telegraph, 13.5.66).
  • “One man in 14 and one woman in nine can expect admission to a mental hospital at least once in a lifetime” (London Borough of Hounslow recent health survey).
  • “There is real poverty, real deprivation at present among low wage earners; Ministry figures show there are 300,000 men in full-time work bringing home less than the National Assistance Board scale at the end of the week” (Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, Margaret Herbison, to the annual conference of Labour Women, 22.5.66).
  • “Economic reforms do not immediately make life easier for the workers. Sometimes they may do the opposite” (Times editorial on Eastern Europe, 31.5.66).


Eddie Critchfield