I quite loved Gabriel Gbadamosi’s coming-of-age novel, a little boy figuring out his place in his family, his school, and his city as the son of an Irish mother and Nigerian dad. Culture and the racism provoked by the colour of your skin, homelessness and addiction, violent death, the embarrassing things that you do as a child because you just don’t know much…
I bought this after doing a walking tour of Vauxhall with Gabriel Gbadamosi (you too should buy it). So I knew I would love it, and recognise some of the stories — it did take me too long to get to this book. I’ve been watching a lot of Trümmerfilm or rubble films, (like The Third Man (Reed 1949), and Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius 1949)), and then reading Stuart Dybek on the tearing down of his Chicago neighborhood after declaring it ‘blighted’ and remembering Marshall Berman describing the Bronx and my many years of struggle in LA and the stories I heard from urban renewal’s heyday.
It struck me how urban renewal resulted in the same kinds of landscapes as WWII, and it struck me that exploring that would be a really good little article. Bombs and war are a different level of violence and terror and death, why then do we recreate its landscapes for profit? It might capture a little of my ever renewed store of fury over people being forced from homes they love and have invested in. I remembered this book, and it did indeed have both bomb damage and the council’s slum-clearing damage and underlined that this losing of home, especially as a child, is something you never quite get over.
How many thousands of children are experiencing this at the moment, because we are bombing them…it breaks my heart. I wish I believed an article would stop bombs and urban renewal and evictions, but it can’t be bad for people to feel these things, get a sense of how they might connect.
So from Vauxhall — first there is growing up where bomb damage is taken for granted:
Brian was pulling back the corrugated iron on the bombsite that was blocked off round by the pub. We didn’t play in there because it was dangerous and could fall in on top of you. (64)
‘Lucky it wasn’t a bomb,’ Brian said, and shrugged.
‘It’s a bomb site.’
It took a while to sink in. A bombsite was a playground, a rough place you could play in between the houses — when you could get in past the corrugated iron. I didn’t know it was the place where a bomb fell. No one told me there was a bomb under there. Until it burst in my head, and the ground went out under my feet. (69)
The feeling of the landscape as more houses begin to come down one by one (This row of houses is just where Vauxhall Park is now, and you would never know it):
It was half dark, the light was going. We looked round at the rubble of broken bricks from the house that wasn’t there any more, at the gaping hole that was full of rubbish people had thrown out. The empty space between the walls had tall weeds growing up into it. We were on our own. (87)
What it is like to lose your neighbours, your best friends:
After I while I passed his house and it was like only I knew anyone ever lived there. It was like a bomb had hit it and everyone had gone, and it was just the walls standing. It was dark and it felt dead, but I still had to get up and walk past it on my way to school and come back, past all the bomb sites where people used to live but no one knew who they were any more. (93)
I’m just going to slip this one quote in here, this specific non-rubble related quote, because I love this bit just as I would have run down always to the Thames….
Everyone told us not to go down by the Thames. Manus said the scaly fish wrapped round the lamp posts would come alive if the water splashed them, they were dredged up from the bottom, that’s why they were black. They had open eyes and fleshy mouths that dripped and glistened in the rain…
‘Dont go down to the river.’
‘All right, Mum.’
The way down was dank and slippery, and I was always down there where it opened on to a bend in the river…Everyone said don’t go, but there river pulled you. (145)
And so to end with this…the whys and the how-it-feels and the anger and the resignation, and a very creepy echo of my own thinking before reading this book that the results of urban renewal and bombing aren’t all that different:
It was like the houses had been eaten from the inside. they just had the wall of them facing the street with the sky through the windows. And then they knocked that down.
‘Like a bomb hit it,’ a man said, passing by in the street as my dad was locking the front door. My mum was beside me putting her coat on and looking up at the flattened houses — you could see through to the back of the school playground. Bits of brick wall were standing, but the houses just weren’t there any more. And they’d knocked down the first two houses on the corner of our street next to the bomb site.
‘The council,’ my dad said over his shoulder.
‘Why?’ The man paused on his way and shook his head, ‘Because the got outside loos?’
My dad shrugged, putting the keys in his pocket, ‘They want the land. Big Ben is just there.’
‘We’re being slum cleared,’ Manus said. (205)
A classic book in many ways, primarily as emblematic of turn-of-the-century Fabian feminism, and at the same time one of the first serious studies of working class women.It is heartbreaking.
I read a large chunk of it in a most horrific yet insanely trendy and expensive hotel we had been put up in last minute as a result of an error in arrangements for a panel. The Mondrian. God. People there dripped money and it heaved with staff anxious to help them and extremely expensive art in terribly bad taste and the ‘prow’ of beaten copper pieces individually soldered had taken two and a half years to create and I sat there in the lobby waiting for my partner without the wherewithal to buy a drink reading about life in cellars and dead babies with tears literally dripping from my nose and the desire to smash all of it. Because we’re heading back there. Back to 1913 — this reads like Dickens but these conditions shamefully lasted well into the 20th Century. Where they should have been abolished forever.
So many babies died. The rest slowly starved, along with their parents. This book contains tables and tables of menus, hard choices, the relationships between housing and illness and death. I love Virago Press, bless them for republishing it with Sally Alexander to deliver the splendid introduction.
The Fabian Women’s Group was actually founded in the home of Maud Pember Reeves in 1908, by Charlotte Wilson, anarchist and early member of the Fabian society. They followed in a long tradition of philanthropy, but brought together women from multiple radical (to reformist perhaps) traditions who still believed in the move from individual solutions to social ones.
Their goals were not small and have yet to be obtained: ‘The two immediate aims … were equality in citizenship and women’s economic independence’ (xiv).
I’m going to delve more into the Fabian Women’s Group (bookmarked for example, is the understanding of class differences in the struggle for gender equality laid out by Mabel Atkinson in The Economic Foundation of the Women’s Movement (Fabian Tract No. 175)), but I so much loved this wonderful reminiscence about the shifting sands of feminism and the generation gap between older Fabians and younger:
There are also faint residues of Victorian standards of propriety about some of the older women. When I asked Amber Blanco White for a description of her mother’s friends in the FWG, she replied that there “was never any time to meet any of them–they were just a lot of women talking about very serious things.” Her mother thought it was important for girls to study their lessons most of the time: having been well educated herself, and her mother before her, she wanted her daughters to grow up in the same way….Femininity tended to be identified with frivolity–they kept a vigilant watch on this side of their character. In the 1909 annual report of the Group, women were urged to “cast aside feminine slackness and negligence with regard to their own affairs”, and get on with the work of preparing for citizenship (xviii-xix).
The scheme behind this study, the “Mother Allowance Scheme” which attempted to make a measurable impact in infant well-being and survival started within a year of the group’s founding. I think Alexander nails what is important about both the nature of the study and the book that was produced, as this was ‘unique in investigating the daily circumstances of women’s lives, how they coped with continual damp, vermin, inadequate food… (x). I liked this as well:
the conclusions were inescapable–the cause of infant mortality was not that mothers were ignorant or degenerate, but that they had too little money to provide for their own and their families’ essential needs…(xi)
The book is quite full of fantastic descriptions of the area. There are a number of longer quotes courtesy of forgottenbooks.com, I could never have typed them from my vintage hardcopy, but they are worth looking at in full:
TAKE a tram from Victoria to Vauxhall Station. Get out under the railway arch which faces Vauxhall Bridge, and there you will find Ken nington Lane. The railway arch roofs in a din which reduces the roar of trains continually passing overhead to a vibrating, muffled rumble. From either end of the arch comes a close procession of trams, motor-buses, brewers’ drays, coal-lorries, carts filled with unspeakable material for glue factory and tannery, motor-cars, coster barrows, and people. It is a stopping-place for tramcars and motor-buses; therefore little knots of agitated persons continually collect on both pathways, and dive between the vehicles and descending passengers in order to board the particular bus or tram they desire. At rhythmic intervals all traffic through the arch is suspended to allow a flood of trams, buses, drays, and vans, to surge and rattle and bang across the opening of the archway which faces the river.
At the opposite end there is no cross-current. The trams slide away to the right towards the Oval. In front is Kennington Lane, and to the left, at right angles, a narrow street connects with Vauxhall Walk, leading farther on into Lambeth Walk, both locally better known as The Walk. Such is the western gateway to the district stretching north to Lambeth Road, south to Lansdowne Road, and east to Walworth Road, where live the people whose lives form the subject of this book.
They are not the poorest people of the district. Far from it! They are, putting aside the tradesmen whose shops line the big thoroughfares such as Kennington Road or Kennington Park Road, some of the more enviable and settled inhabitants of this part of the world. The poorest people” the river-side casual, the workhouse in-and-out, the bar-room loafer ” are anxiously ignored by these respectable persons whose work is permanent, as permanency goes in Lambeth, and whose wages range from i8s. to 305. a week. They generally are somebody’s labourer, mate, or handyman. Painters’ labourers, plumbers’ labourers, builders’ handymen, dustmen’s mates, printers’ labourers, potters’ labourers, trouncers for carmen, are common amongst them. Or they may be fish-fryers, tailors’ pressers, feather cleaners’ assistants, railway-carriage washers, employees of dust contractors, carmen for Borough Council contractors, or packers of various descriptions (2-3).
The streets they live in are monotonously and drearily decent, lying back from the main arteries, and with little traffic other than a stray barrel organ, a coal-lorry selling by the hundredweight sack, or a taxi-cab going to or from its driver’s dinner at home. At certain hours in the day ” before morning school, at midday, and after four o’clock ” these narrow streets become full of screaming, running, shouting children. Early in the morning men come from every door and pass out of sight. At different times during the evening the same men straggle home again. At all other hours the street is quiet and desperately dull. Less ultra-respectable neighbourhoods may have a certain picturesqueness, or give a sense of community of interest or of careless comradeship, with their untidy women chatting in the doorways and their unoccupied men lounging at the street corners; but in these superior streets a kind of dull aloofness seems to be the order of the day (3).
The houses are outwardly decent–two stories of grimy brick. The roadway is narrow, but on the whole well kept, and on the pavement outside many doors there is to be noticed, in a greater or less condition of freshness, a semicircle of hearthstone, which has for its radius the length of the housewife’s arm as she kneels on the step. In some streets little paved alleyways lead behind the front row of houses, and twist and turn among still smaller dwellings at the back ” dwellings where the front door leads downwards into a room instead of upwards into a passage. Districts of this kind cover dreary acres–the same little two-story house, with or without an inconceivably drearier basement, with the same kind of baker’s shop at the corner faced by the same kind of greengrocer’s shop opposite. The ugly, constantly-recurring school buildings are a relief to the spirit oppressed by the awful monotony (4-5).
The description of the study, and social experiment, is fairly astonishing in its matter-of-fact summation of widespread desperate poverty that hopefully we will never return to:
A sum of money was placed at the disposal of this committee in order to enable them to study the effect on mother and child of sufficient nourishment before and after birth. Access was obtained to the list of out-patients of a well-known lying in hospital; names and addresses of expectant mothers were taken from the list, and a couple of visitors were instructed to undertake the weekly task of seeing each woman in her own home, supplying the nourishment, and noting the effects. From as long as three months before birth, if possible, till the child was a year old, the visits were to continue. The committee decided that the wives of men receiving over 26s. a week were likely to have already sufficient nourishment, while the wives of men out of work or receiving less than i8s. a week were likely to be living in a state of such misery that the temptation to let the rest of the family share in the mother’s and baby’s nourishment would be too great (8).
As if that weren’t bad enough, they were in for another unexpected surprise when actually faced with the realities of people’s lives:
It was at first proposed to rule out disease, but pulmonary and respiratory disease were found to be so common that to rule them out would be to refuse about half the cases. It was therefore decided to regard such a condition of health as normal, and to refuse only such cases of active or malignant disease in the parents as might, in the doctor’s opinion, completely wreck the child’s chance of a healthy life (9).
And to me unsurprisingly, but to them, busy checking and rechecking the honesty of their subjects (because so much of this book is about middle-class prejudices, though I give them credit for overcoming them to an impressive extent in understanding at least the objective conditions faced by working families):
the budgets have borne out each other in the most striking manner. There seems to be so little choice in the manner of keeping a family on 2os. a week (12).
There are some great little sections of immense detail — hinting at the riches held in the actual archives:
Emma, aged eleven, began as follows: “Mr G’s wages was 19 bob out of that e took thruppons for es diner witch is not mutch e bein sutch a arty man. The rent was six and Mrs G payed fower an six because Bobby’s boots was off is feet and his knew ones was one an six witch makes six and that leaves 12 an 9 and out of that,” etc. It took four pages of painstaking manuscript in a school exercise-book to complete one week (14).
And even these judgmental and haughty women could be humbled — and acknowledged it:
The women who kept their accounts for themselves were found to be better arithmeticians than they were writers. Their addition had a disconcerting way of being correct, even when the visitor seemed to get a different total (14).
There is also some level of self-awareness here, of the intrusion such a study represents and the cost born by the working women involved:
At the beginning of each case the woman seemed to steel herself to sit patiently and bear it while the expected questions or teaching of something should follow (16).
It doesn’t stop Maud Pember Reeves from being a little judgmental, but still she is wise enough to realise that even a serious, well-organised and collective fight would not be enough to materially change very much:
The tenants might do more for themselves if they understood and could use their rights ” if they expected to be more comfortable than they are. They put up with broken and defective grates which burn twice the coal for half the heat; they accept plagues of rats or of vermin as acts of God; they deplore a stopped-up drain without making an effective complaint, because they are afraid of being told to find new quarters if they make too much fuss. If they could or would take concerted action, they could right a great many of the smaller grievances. But, when all is said and done, these reforms could do very little as long as most of the present buildings exist at all, or as long as a family of eight persons can only afford two, or at most three, small rooms (38).
I loved this as well, having done so much tenant organising — and lost my own home as a teenager — it amazes me that anyone could assume that people are happy just to leave their homes, poor as they may be. I have never found that to be true, and possibly has never been true, which is why the fight needs to be to make places better for the people who live there:
strange as it may seem to those whose bi-weekly visit to Lambeth is like a bi-weekly plunge into Hades–the people to whom Lambeth is home want to stay in Lambeth (39).
That fight is on again I think. Give Pember Reeves her due, she was able to recognise it. Just as there is a brilliant section where she patiently explains how they slowly unravelled the reason working class women weren’t feeding their families porridge as recommended by every philanthropic visitor and doctor ever — there was little time to cook it the morning it was to be eaten, cooked the day before it was terrible without milk or sugar — and not one of these families could afford milk or sugar, it was quick to burn in the one old decrepit pot each family used for cooking, and when that pot had been in use the night before for fish stew — well, you can imagine. All this was a major discovery for philanthropy.
I think the gap in understanding between classes is most visible in her descriptions of attitudes and bearing — and clearly this is what the presence of one of these formidable and never-frivolous socialists would most impact. They describe a class without life or humour to any degree, which I cannot believe at all. Possibly because the humour was hidden, or because they could not understand it, or because it was not convenient for a book urging the world to action like this was meant to be. Still, perhaps the below was true for some, and I’m the last person to say a life of such want and misery doesn’t cost:
Want of joy of life was the most salient feature of the children as they grew older. They to readily accepted limitations and qualifications imposed upon them, without that irrational hoping against impossibility and belief in favourable miracles which carry more fortunate children through many disappointments (93).
The outstanding fact about the children was not their stupidity nor their lack of beauty–they were neither stupid nor ugly–it was their puny size and damaged health (193).
I quite loved this:
If the poor were not improvident, they would hardly dare to live their lives at all (146).
I also loved her defense of men, and understanding of their position after children come along:
if he be at all tender-hearted towards his family…he must never smoke, he must never take a glass of ale; he must walk to and from his work in all weathers; he must have no recreations but the continual mending of his children’s boots; he must neither read nor go to picture palaces nor take holidays, if he is to do all that social reformers expect of him when they theoretically parcel out his tiny income (152).
There’s a fascinating little section about someone who was a tenant on the Duchy of Cornwall estate, and early slum clearance schemes which seemed to have made life worse for many (as they still do today as well):
She solved her problem by becoming a tenant of the Duchy of Cornwall estate. She got four tiny rooms for 8s., and kept them spotless. Her husband, who was a painter’s labourer and a devoted gardener, kept the tiny strip of yard gay with flowers, and kept the interior of the damp, ill-contrived little house fresh with “licks of paint” of motley colours and patches and odds and ends of a medley of papers. When work was slack, Mrs. C. simply did not pay the rent at all. As she said: “The Prince er Wales, ‘e won’t sell us up if we keeps the place a credit to ‘im.” She seemed to be right, for they owed a great deal of rent, and were never threatened with ejection. She explained the principle on which she worked as follows: “Me and my young man we keeps the place nice, and wen ‘e’s out er work in the winter I gets twenty loaves and 2 lbs. er sixpenny fer the children, and a snack er meat fer ‘im, and then I begins ter think about payin’ th’ agent out er anythink I ‘as left. I’d be tellin’ a lie if I said I didn’t owe a bit in the rent-book, and now and agen th’ agent gets a shillin’ er two extra fer back money, but ‘e carn’t ‘elp seeing’ ‘ow creditable the place is. That piece er blue paper looks a fair treat through the winder, so ‘e don’t make no fuss.” The house they lived in, and many like it, have been demolished, and a number of well-built houses are appearing in their stead. The Lambeth people declare that the rents have gone up, however, and that the displaced tenants will not be able to return, but this rumour has not been inquired into. What happened to the C.’s overdraft when they were oblidged to turn out is not know. The children of this family were short and stumpy, but of solid build, and certainly had more vigour and staying-power than those of the two other families already mentioned…(183-185)
It ends with a look at the bigger picture and recommendations for change. I quite appreciated her skewering of the men running the country:
Instead, however, of co-operating with parents and seeing to it that its wards are supplied with such primary necessaries, this masculine State, representing only male voters, and, until lately, chiefly those of the richer classes, has been crude and unwise in its relations with all parents guilty of the crime of poverty (215).
It doesn’t really depart from the Fabian philosophy at all, but is surprisingly modern in some ways with its push for a minimum wage to raise the bottom wages, and its talk of the state as guardian. There is much here to critique, but for its time it is a splendid study, and in its subject matter unique as it rescues to some extent a world of experience that might otherwise have been completely lost. These are women who often could not write, whose voices were never heard. Again, something we have fought hard and changed, but I am so afraid it is something that once more we could lose.
It takes some work finding your way to Covent House, New Covent Garden. A bit of adventure in fact, walking down a residential road taking on faith that there is a gate at the other end of it, though you can see nothing until you are there. At the gate. Tucked down just before you hit the dead end. You walk through it and into an industrial world of large buildings and wide asphalt spaces and trucks. Pedestrian wanderers feel out of place, even after hours — I imagined the busy chaos it must be at peak times. But I arrived easily and safely and the talk by the lovely Helen Evans was so interesting, and opened up so many things I want to look into further.
It was immigration — the arrival of the Huguenots and the Dutch — that saw the real beginnings of intensive horticulture along the south bank of the Thames, and a shift from house gardens to growing produce for market. South London for many years was known for produce: the famous Battersea bundles, or asparagus, the growth of ‘simples’ or herbs like lavender on Lavender Hill. Artichokes, saffron, musk melon, even grapes and the now little known medlar tree (apparently for good reason as the fruit can’t be eaten until it is rotting off the tree and even then it was said it’s not very nice. I need to find some) grown as cash crops and easily transported to the old Covent Garden market by boats, which brought ‘night soil’ back to be used as fertiliser on their return journey.
I liked the sound of musk melons as well, what are those I asked myself? Turns out it is a general term for a variety of melon, cucumis melo, that includes the canteloupe and honeydew. Not as exciting as I’d hoped, but delicious, even if I’m slightly allergic to them.
This system of growing vegetables on one bank of the river, transporting them by boat to the city on the other side, and bringing back fertiliser underlines the sustainability of past systems of food production that we have left far behind — but should probably consider returning to again where possible. Interesting that climate change has already had enough of an effect that more crops are being grown in the UK for market that never used to be, like figs. Instead the New Covent Garden is part of a worldwide food system that is a little bit crazy. With the huge growth of London, the fruit/vegetable/flower market by the 1960s had long outgrown old Covent Garden, where essentially all produce was being brought, bought up by local produce shops, and redistributed again. The suburbanisation of South London meant that trucks rather than boats became the main vehicle for transportation. I can’t even imagine the chaos on the Strand. So it was moved to this new site, developed for access by large trucks moving produce from large farm to large clearing center to growing supermarket.
This all changed again very shortly after the new site was built (they moved in 1974). Ever larger supermarket chains developed their own increasingly globalised delivery system (talk about unsustainability), and dealt directly with large market farms around the world for their produce, cutting out New Covent Garden almost entirely. So the customer base is now almost entirely smaller consumers of bulk fresh fruit and veg: restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools. I started to get really jealous when she described the multiple varieties of fruit and veg the market deals with, not tied down to the ‘perfection’ sold by the supermarkets. The stuff grown because it lasts longer on the shelf and looks most like the ideal and always picked too soon. Instead you can buy tastier and messier mangoes, apples of multiple varieties, small and sweet strawberries — oh, delicious delicious! But only in bulk, and only early in the morning.
She had a fabulous chart of food fashion over the decades as well, the shifting trends in consumption, the date that Jazz apples were first introduced, when kiwis became a ‘thing’, when peppers and courgettes were still marginal (known as queer gear in the trade — curious). Apparently there is a move by cauliflower growers to bring it back into everyday cuisine because sales have fallen so steeply (so go buy some cauliflower!). There are now tourist trails through the rhubarb sheds of Yorkshire ( I am so on that). I learned so much, not least from the awesome little notebook we received that has the fruit and veg in season month by month — you can get a chart here. There are so many reason to buy seasonal and locally-grown food, taste and the future of the planet principle among them.
She had alluded to the Nine Elms development and the development of the market itself several times, which made my heart sink because I hate everything about the Nine Elms development and didn’t want to hear about the market getting moved on because the real estate it’s sitting on is too valuable for just fruit and veg. I was relieved to hear that it’s not getting moved on, though it is getting redeveloped. I’m always suspicious of that, but undoubtedly the market needs a thorough updating given the changes in food distribution systems. It seems like they’ve worked out a fairly good deal, financed through selling 20 of their 57 acres (where the flower market is now). I need to look into it more, and the plans and such are all here on their website, but from their perspective it will better cater to their actual clientele, have more capacity to sell direct to the public, and have a better venue for education and their own garden. I still hate that it’s part of this massive influx of cold high rise luxury development, I wonder what will happen to the very nice estate I walked past to get there, I fear that the new ‘public’ the developers at least are preparing for is a very different one than the folks living there now.
But these fears are all for future posts. At the least I am glad the market is remaining, is redeveloping. It is an awesome place.
I loved this tour by author Gabriel Gbadamosi, who was unprepared for his own popularity and expected 3 or 4 arrivals instead of the 15 or so. We trooped around the little park in a group more diverse racially, culturally, and in terms of age than I was expecting. I loved that. He is a storyteller, and I don’t want to steal his stories or recast them in my own voice, they are too good. I am looking forward to encountering many of them again in his book, which sits beside me now, though I have not yet had time to read it. Another day, another post.
A taste though. We stood on a little hill in the new Vauxhall Gardens — a fraction of the site of the old Vauxhall Gardens, famous and infamous pleasure gardens of the 18th and early 19th centuries. I brought all kinds of knowledge of those along with me, having encountered them in my mother’s historical romances, in Dickens’ brilliant descriptions of their magic by night and their tawdriness by day — the days only revealed in a last ditch effort to maintain the gardens as profitable. I knew that Hogarth had painted the scenes and held a golden ticket. I thought back to the fairly fabulous Museum of London display that attempts to immerse you in this past with its fairy lights and sound recordings and murals of graceful ladies in their beautiful dresses. I believed them completely gone, covered up by the relentless creep of development. In fact, they were.
This piece of ground had been here and I had found it on an earlier attempt to discover Vauxhall for myself, but it was labeled as something else and not very appealing as a park space. I missed the presence of the farm all together, never connecting it to those pictures of my friend’s children amidst the animals, when I glanced in and passed it by. Redevelopment has now motivated the council to commemorate its past grandeur, but not the people who once lived there. Gbadamosi grew up in a row of houses once standing on that grassy knoll, one of them bought through toil and struggle by his father, occupied and loved by a host of Irish Nigerian children. Torn down as a plan of slum clearance by the council. He passed around a photograph showing his sister, a beautiful old car, a neighbourhood that stood where we stood that to my American eyes was quite beautiful. There is nothing left to commemorate it, you would never know it had ever been there. I think so much about buildings, ruins, the ease with which our histories are erased when the buildings that have held us are gone. Words are all that are left. Pictures. Memories. Loss. On a lighter note, where will they put his blue plaque?
And so I felt at home on this tour, the memories of a poor childhood but a happy one, a culturally mixed and intermingled one, and the anger over a home lost and the understanding of how much more that meant than just the loss of four walls. I’ve been reading Marshall Berman lately too, and wonder if everyone who loses their home carries around with them that anger, that pervading sense of loss. I suppose we, the dispossessed, often have little ability to express these things in ways that can be widely heard, nor is it something you can casually drop in conversation. It has shaped my life so much, and while it does not make me happy to find it in others, it makes me feel that I am part of a community. These are my people, because they can understand the way that this event (events in the plural I suppose now, in a way) rumbles on through my thinking, so fundamental to who I have become. There are more and more of us, victims of the slow violence of modern displacement for profit through clearances, foreclosures, evictions.
Of course, I love this community of shared experience most when it also joins a fascination with history and some good politics. We heard about the mixing of the high and the low in the gardens, references to it in literature. In contrast, there was the industry along the bank of the Thames, the potteries and factories and Blake looking out his window upon Dark Satanic Mills. Vauxhall is also of course the new(ish) home of MI6 in the obvious and not so obvious places (for some lighthearted spy geography, much of it in South London, see this post from the Londonist), the site of new embassies — and of course that is where the Americans are coming to rest. The secret services undoubtedly make them feel safe, unlike the rest of us. Where we stood was also the location for the launching of the missile at MI6 by the IRA in September of 2000.
Two things that struck me most: the homeless folks and addicts that lived in the arches under the railway, who were allowed to use the Gbadmosi’s outside (!) toilet, often given food. His Irish Catholic mother said they were angels, tests of our charity, you should always help them. His Nigerian father said they were like the dead, and so you should always help them.
I pondered that, it has not left me. The mercifully brief presence of a young heckler already drunk on our morning walk showed that some other aspects of the past had not left us. I was almost glad to see it, it means those surviving on the edges, can by can or hit by hit, still have a place among us. That there may still exist some desire to deal with root causes rather than simply forcing our people suffering such problems into the outskirts and the shadows. Of course, imagining that our council has any desire to deal with root causes is a little idealistically indulgent.
The other thing is that as children who had not lived through WWII, to Gbadamosi and his siblings the word bomb site meant only an open space to play in. I am a bit fascinated by bomb sites, how they were incorporated into everyday life for so long, how they were gradually filled in — and you can see the filling. How they opened up opportunities to build social housing across the entire city — a promise of social quality that has since been renounced. The horror of Gravity’s Rainbow, pictures of flame and death and ruin, a mystique of wartime bravery and camaraderie. A common reaction I suppose, and I digress.
After leaving the park we walked down to see the old Doulton factory, pausing to look at the tiles and mosaics under the bridge on Salamanca Street. On the way we stopped at a highly secure building I’d always wondered about, and is apparently the headquarters of the firm specialising in transporting the world’s masterpieces of art. So cool. The old factory itself is stunning, I remember wandering past it for the first time and wondering how such a beautiful thing of craftsmanship was built. It too was bombed, but this piece of the facade thankfully preserved.
There was so much more but I shall send you to Gbadamosi’s website to read essays and get his book, the multiwalks website and phone app to experience a much expanded tour for yourself — more on that when I get a chance to explore a little more.
I enjoyed these greatly, these ridiculously detailed descriptions of life and London in a period we now suffer immense nostalgia for — they form a humorous and rather critical counterpoint to the twee recreations of Victorian glory. In terms of the uselessness of politicians and the practices of parents and couples and aristocrats, indeed, surprisingly little has changed. I couldn’t help feel though, that society has improved for the better now that a woman’s options have expanded beyond marriage and class isn’t quite all it used to be, not that it has changed enough.
These were written in sections, and published in installments — I love this form, though it doesn’t quite have the same feeling here as it does in more pulp narratives like Dickens’ other works, or Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris for example. i also love the pen name of Boz, and this verse in Bentley’s Miscellany for March 1837:
“Who the dickens ‘Boz’ could be
Puzzled many a learned elf,
Till time unveiled the mystery,
And ‘Boz’ appeared as Dickens’s self.”
Dickens’ humour is directed here there and everywhere and sometimes I quite loved him — his descriptions of children and their doting mothers were timeless for example — but sometimes I couldn’t help but feel he was being a bit of a pompous and patronising ** . The risks of this kind of social commentary really. The tale of the four Miss Willises is quite my favourite and will never be forgotten, and this could easily have been a Monty Python sketch in the tradition of the twits:
MR. COPPERNOSE called the attention of the section to a proposition of great magnitude and interest, illustrated by a vast number of models, and stated with much clearness and perspicuity in a treatise entitled “Practical Suggestions on the necessity of providing some harmless and wholesome relaxation for the young noblemen of England.” His proposition was, that a space of ground of not less than ten miles in length and four in breadth should be purchased by a new company, to be incorporated by Act of Parliament, and inclosed by a brick wall of not less than twelve feet in height. He proposed that it should be laid out with highway roads, turnpikes, bridges, miniature villages, and every object that could conduce to the comfort and glory of Four-in-hand Clubs, so that they might be fairly presumed to require no drive beyond it. This delightful retreat would be fitted up with most commodious and extensive stables, for the convenience of such of the nobility and gentry as had a taste for ostlering, and with houses of entertainment furnished in the most expensive and handsome style. It would be further provided with whole streets of door-knockers and bell-handles of extra size, so constructed that they could be easily wrenched off at night, and regularly screwed on again, by attendants provided for the purpose, every day. There would also be gas lamps of real glass, which could be broken at a comparatively small expense per dozen, and a broad and handsome foot pavement for gentlemen to drive their cabriolets upon when they were humorously disposed—for the full enjoyment of which feat live pedestrians would be procured from the workhouse at a very small charge per head. The place being inclosed, and carefully screened from the intrusion of the public, there would be no objection to gentlemen laying aside any article of their costume that was considered to interfere with a pleasant frolic, or, indeed, to their walking about without any costume at all, if they liked that better. In short, every facility of enjoyment would be afforded that the most gentlemanly person could possibly desire. But as even these advantages would be incomplete unless there were some means provided of enabling the nobility and gentry to display their prowess when they sallied forth after dinner, and as some inconvenience might be experienced in the event of their being reduced to the necessity of pummelling each other, the inventor had turned his attention to the construction of an entirely new police force, composed exclusively of automaton figures, which, with the assistance of the ingenious Signor Gagliardi, of Windmill-street, in the Haymarket, he had succeeded in making with such nicety, that a policeman, cab-driver, or old woman, made upon the principle of the models exhibited, would walk about until knocked down like any real man; nay, more, if set upon and beaten by six or eight noblemen or gentlemen, after it was down, the figure would utter divers groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy, thus rendering the illusion complete, and the enjoyment perfect. But the invention did not stop even here; for station-houses would be built, containing good beds for noblemen and gentlemen during the night, and in the morning they would repair to a commodious police office, where a pantomimic investigation would take place before the automaton magistrates,—quite equal to life,—who would fine them in so many counters, with which they would be previously provided for the purpose. This office would be furnished with an inclined plane, for the convenience of any nobleman or gentleman who might wish to bring in his horse as a witness; and the prisoners would be at perfect liberty, as they were now, to interrupt the complainants as much as they pleased, and to make any remarks that they thought proper. The charge for these amusements would amount to very little more than they already cost, and the inventor submitted that the public would be much benefited and comforted by the proposed arrangement.
‘PROFESSOR NOGO wished to be informed what amount of automaton police force it was proposed to raise in the first instance.
‘MR. COPPERNOSE replied, that it was proposed to begin with seven divisions of police of a score each, lettered from A to G inclusive. It was proposed that not more than half this number should be placed on active duty, and that the remainder should be kept on shelves in the police office ready to be called out at a moment’s notice.
‘THE PRESIDENT, awarding the utmost merit to the ingenious gentleman who had originated the idea, doubted whether the automaton police would quite answer the purpose. He feared that noblemen and gentlemen would perhaps require the excitement of thrashing living subjects.
‘MR. COPPERNOSE submitted, that as the usual odds in such cases were ten noblemen or gentlemen to one policeman or cab-driver, it could make very little difference in point of excitement whether the policeman or cab-driver were a man or a block. The great advantage would be, that a policeman’s limbs might be all knocked off, and yet he would be in a condition to do duty next day. He might even give his evidence next morning with his head in his hand, and give it equally well.
And to bring it all home to Lambeth:
CHAPTER XIV—VAUXHALL-GARDENS BY DAY
There was a time when if a man ventured to wonder how Vauxhall-gardens would look by day, he was hailed with a shout of derision at the absurdity of the idea. Vauxhall by daylight! A porter-pot without porter, the House of Commons without the Speaker, a gas-lamp without the gas—pooh, nonsense, the thing was not to be thought of. It was rumoured, too, in those times, that Vauxhall-gardens by day, were the scene of secret and hidden experiments; that there, carvers were exercised in the mystic art of cutting a moderate-sized ham into slices thin enough to pave the whole of the grounds; that beneath the shade of the tall trees, studious men were constantly engaged in chemical experiments, with the view of discovering how much water a bowl of negus could possibly bear; and that in some retired nooks, appropriated to the study of ornithology, other sage and learned men were, by a process known only to themselves, incessantly employed in reducing fowls to a mere combination of skin and bone.
Vague rumours of this kind, together with many others of a similar nature, cast over Vauxhall-gardens an air of deep mystery; and as there is a great deal in the mysterious, there is no doubt that to a good many people, at all events, the pleasure they afforded was not a little enhanced by this very circumstance.
Of this class of people we confess to having made one. We loved to wander among these illuminated groves, thinking of the patient and laborious researches which had been carried on there during the day, and witnessing their results in the suppers which were served up beneath the light of lamps and to the sound of music at night. The temples and saloons and cosmoramas and fountains glittered and sparkled before our eyes; the beauty of the lady singers and the elegant deportment of the gentlemen, captivated our hearts; a few hundred thousand of additional lamps dazzled our senses; a bowl or two of punch bewildered our brains; and we were happy.
In an evil hour, the proprietors of Vauxhall-gardens took to opening them by day. We regretted this, as rudely and harshly disturbing that veil of mystery which had hung about the property for many years, and which none but the noonday sun, and the late Mr. Simpson, had ever penetrated. We shrunk from going; at this moment we scarcely know why. Perhaps a morbid consciousness of approaching disappointment—perhaps a fatal presentiment—perhaps the weather; whatever it was, we did not go until the second or third announcement of a race between two balloons tempted us, and we went.
We paid our shilling at the gate, and then we saw for the first time, that the entrance, if there had been any magic about it at all, was now decidedly disenchanted, being, in fact, nothing more nor less than a combination of very roughly-painted boards and sawdust. We glanced at the orchestra and supper-room as we hurried past—we just recognised them, and that was all. We bent our steps to the firework-ground; there, at least, we should not be disappointed. We reached it, and stood rooted to the spot with mortification and astonishment. That the Moorish tower—that wooden shed with a door in the centre, and daubs of crimson and yellow all round, like a gigantic watch-case! That the place where night after night we had beheld the undaunted Mr. Blackmore make his terrific ascent, surrounded by flames of fire, and peals of artillery, and where the white garments of Madame Somebody (we forget even her name now), who nobly devoted her life to the manufacture of fireworks, had so often been seen fluttering in the wind, as she called up a red, blue, or party-coloured light to illumine her temple! That the—but at this moment the bell rung; the people scampered away, pell-mell, to the spot from whence the sound proceeded; and we, from the mere force of habit, found ourself running among the first, as if for very life.
It was for the concert in the orchestra. A small party of dismal men in cocked hats were ‘executing’ the overture to Tancredi, and a numerous assemblage of ladies and gentlemen, with their families, had rushed from their half-emptied stout mugs in the supper boxes, and crowded to the spot. Intense was the low murmur of admiration when a particularly small gentleman, in a dress coat, led on a particularly tall lady in a blue sarcenet pelisse and bonnet of the same, ornamented with large white feathers, and forthwith commenced a plaintive duet.
We knew the small gentleman well; we had seen a lithographed semblance of him, on many a piece of music, with his mouth wide open as if in the act of singing; a wine-glass in his hand; and a table with two decanters and four pine-apples on it in the background. The tall lady, too, we had gazed on, lost in raptures of admiration, many and many a time—how different people do look by daylight, and without punch, to be sure! It was a beautiful duet: first the small gentleman asked a question, and then the tall lady answered it; then the small gentleman and the tall lady sang together most melodiously; then the small gentleman went through a little piece of vehemence by himself, and got very tenor indeed, in the excitement of his feelings, to which the tall lady responded in a similar manner; then the small gentleman had a shake or two, after which the tall lady had the same, and then they both merged imperceptibly into the original air: and the band wound themselves up to a pitch of fury, and the small gentleman handed the tall lady out, and the applause was rapturous.
The comic singer, however, was the especial favourite; we really thought that a gentleman, with his dinner in a pocket-handkerchief, who stood near us, would have fainted with excess of joy. A marvellously facetious gentleman that comic singer is; his distinguishing characteristics are, a wig approaching to the flaxen, and an aged countenance, and he bears the name of one of the English counties, if we recollect right. He sang a very good song about the seven ages, the first half-hour of which afforded the assembly the purest delight; of the rest we can make no report, as we did not stay to hear any more.
We walked about, and met with a disappointment at every turn; our favourite views were mere patches of paint; the fountain that had sparkled so showily by lamp-light, presented very much the appearance of a water-pipe that had burst; all the ornaments were dingy, and all the walks gloomy. There was a spectral attempt at rope-dancing in the little open theatre. The sun shone upon the spangled dresses of the performers, and their evolutions were about as inspiriting and appropriate as a country-dance in a family vault. So we retraced our steps to the firework-ground, and mingled with the little crowd of people who were contemplating Mr. Green.
Some half-dozen men were restraining the impetuosity of one of the balloons, which was completely filled, and had the car already attached; and as rumours had gone abroad that a Lord was ‘going up,’ the crowd were more than usually anxious and talkative. There was one little man in faded black, with a dirty face and a rusty black neckerchief with a red border, tied in a narrow wisp round his neck, who entered into conversation with everybody, and had something to say upon every remark that was made within his hearing. He was standing with his arms folded, staring up at the balloon, and every now and then vented his feelings of reverence for the aëronaut, by saying, as he looked round to catch somebody’s eye, ‘He’s a rum ’un is Green; think o’ this here being up’ards of his two hundredth ascent; ecod, the man as is ekal to Green never had the toothache yet, nor won’t have within this hundred year, and that’s all about it. When you meets with real talent, and native, too, encourage it, that’s what I say;’ and when he had delivered himself to this effect, he would fold his arms with more determination than ever, and stare at the balloon with a sort of admiring defiance of any other man alive, beyond himself and Green, that impressed the crowd with the opinion that he was an oracle.
‘Ah, you’re very right, sir,’ said another gentleman, with his wife, and children, and mother, and wife’s sister, and a host of female friends, in all the gentility of white pocket-handkerchiefs, frills, and spencers, ‘Mr. Green is a steady hand, sir, and there’s no fear about him.’
‘Fear!’ said the little man: ‘isn’t it a lovely thing to see him and his wife a going up in one balloon, and his own son and his wife a jostling up against them in another, and all of them going twenty or thirty mile in three hours or so, and then coming back in pochayses? I don’t know where this here science is to stop, mind you; that’s what bothers me.’
Here there was a considerable talking among the females in the spencers.
‘What’s the ladies a laughing at, sir?’ inquired the little man, condescendingly.
‘It’s only my sister Mary,’ said one of the girls, ‘as says she hopes his lordship won’t be frightened when he’s in the car, and want to come out again.’
‘Make yourself easy about that there, my dear,’ replied the little man. ‘If he was so much as to move a inch without leave, Green would jist fetch him a crack over the head with the telescope, as would send him into the bottom of the basket in no time, and stun him till they come down again.’
‘Would he, though?’ inquired the other man.
‘Yes, would he,’ replied the little one, ‘and think nothing of it, neither, if he was the king himself. Green’s presence of mind is wonderful.’
Just at this moment all eyes were directed to the preparations which were being made for starting. The car was attached to the second balloon, the two were brought pretty close together, and a military band commenced playing, with a zeal and fervour which would render the most timid man in existence but too happy to accept any means of quitting that particular spot of earth on which they were stationed. Then Mr. Green, sen., and his noble companion entered one car, and Mr. Green, jun., and his companion the other; and then the balloons went up, and the aërial travellers stood up, and the crowd outside roared with delight, and the two gentlemen who had never ascended before, tried to wave their flags, as if they were not nervous, but held on very fast all the while; and the balloons were wafted gently away, our little friend solemnly protesting, long after they were reduced to mere specks in the air, that he could still distinguish the white hat of Mr. Green. The gardens disgorged their multitudes, boys ran up and down screaming ‘bal-loon;’ and in all the crowded thoroughfares people rushed out of their shops into the middle of the road, and having stared up in the air at two little black objects till they almost dislocated their necks, walked slowly in again, perfectly satisfied.
The next day there was a grand account of the ascent in the morning papers, and the public were informed how it was the finest day but four in Mr. Green’s remembrance; how they retained sight of the earth till they lost it behind the clouds; and how the reflection of the balloon on the undulating masses of vapour was gorgeously picturesque; together with a little science about the refraction of the sun’s rays, and some mysterious hints respecting atmospheric heat and eddying currents of air.
There was also an interesting account how a man in a boat was distinctly heard by Mr. Green, jun., to exclaim, ‘My eye!’ which Mr. Green, jun., attributed to his voice rising to the balloon, and the sound being thrown back from its surface into the car; and the whole concluded with a slight allusion to another ascent next Wednesday, all of which was very instructive and very amusing, as our readers will see if they look to the papers. If we have forgotten to mention the date, they have only to wait till next summer, and take the account of the first ascent, and it will answer the purpose equally well.
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.