I am not sure why I loved Child of the Jago so much more than Tales of Mean Streets. That had artistry and skill and eschewed the spectacular and violent — I was worried that this novel focusing on the violence of the true slums (actually a rarity in East London contrary to popular legend) would edge us more into sensationalist territory which rarely fails to piss me off (especially after reading Burke). But it didn’t.
The novel itself works well, almost proto-noir of the kind with a heart like Crumley or Chandler. It is based on intensive research — while Morrison came from the working-class East End, it was very different from the streets and courts of the Old Nichol described here under a different name. He turned to Father Jay Sturt, who had established a parish there and figures large in the narrative (and some of his paternalism got a little annoying to be honest). Sturt himself had written about the place in Life in Darkest London (1881), The Social Problem and Its Solution (1893), and A Story of Shoreditch (1896). Hard to find, sadly. He helped Morrison meet the residents, and he visited homes, drank in pubs, listened to stories, learned to make match matchboxes, Morrison invited people to his home in Loughton and made recordings of how they spoke (at least I think I read that right — it is just possible given the date, so are those lying around somewhere? Can you imagine the treasure that would be?). Morrison himself notes that he set ‘traps’ of particularly bad incidents that he thought reviewers would call out as impossible — and made sure all of them were things that he could document actually happened.
A square of two hundred and fifty yards or less–that was all there was of the Jago. But in that square the human population swarmed in thousands. Old Jago Street, New Jago Street, Half Jago street lay parallel, east and west: Jago Row at one end and Edge Lane at the other lay parallel also, stretching north and south, foul ways all. What was too vile for Kate Street, Seven Dials and Ratcliff Highway in its worst day, what was too useless, incapable and corrupt–all that teemed in the Old Jago. (45)
And he gives us a map! Along with descriptions of this place, you can only be glad it was torn down to become the London County Council’s Boundary Street Scheme:
Front doors were merely used as firewood in the Old Jago, and most had been burnt there many years ago. If perchance one could have been found still on its hinges, it stood ever open and probably would not shut. Thus at night the Jago doorways were a row of black holes, foul and forbidding.
Dicky Perrott entered his hole with caution, for anywhere in the passage and on the stairs, somebody might be lying drunk against whom it would be unsafe to stumble. (48)
It’s treads are missing, the rails gone from the sides, the interior cold and damp, grim and soul destroying. Morrison describes a world run by two families, the Ranns and the Learys, where no one is in work, where women pick up wealthy drunks and bring them home to the ‘cosh’ from their husband. Everyone else lives on various levels of hustle. At the top — the high mobsmen. There is much left unsaid, but a surprising amount actually said. You navigate this place alongside a tiny little boy named Dicky Perrot who questions none of it, dreams only of a piece of cake and knows well that to get it he must steal it. I was snared by this longing because of my own immense love of cake. I remember a time when I too wanted nothing more in the world than a piece of cake though I know it can’t compare. I have eaten today, and well. I ate yesterday and the day before. I can buy cake whenever I want. I am blessed.
As if the cake weren’t enough, when in trouble Dicky pours his troubles into the ears of Jerry Gullen’s donkey, his beloved Canary. He can’t trust anyone else with pain and tears and weakness. That too is something I know, though I know it can’t compare. I was never beaten by my father. I had places to be alone and cry.
So you cheer him on through his life of crime, celebrate his exploits, mourn his shreds of innocence and exploitation by the horrible Mr Weech, who later destroys any chance of honest work. You feel superior when the good Father has no idea at all what is going on and is confirmed in his prejudices. I like that this book takes him down a bit. Too quickly you jump ahead in time and it ceases to be quite as good a story, but still an important one. It has memorable fight scenes of all descriptions and more evil and poverty and death and despair and occasional kindnesses than you could ever ask for.
All that, and in addition he makes fun of liberals and ‘missionaries’ who come slumming down to the East End:
Other young men, more fortunately circumstanced, with the educational varnish fresh and raw upon them, came from afar, equipped with a foreign mode of thought and a foreign ignorance of the world and the proportions of things, as Missionaries. Not without some anxiety to their parents, they plunged into the perilous depths of the East End , to struggle–for a fortnight–with its suffering and its brutishness. So they went among the tradesmen’s sons and the shopmen, who endured them as they endured the nominal subscription; and they came away with a certain relief, and with some misgiving as to what impression they had made, and what they had done to make it. But is was with knowledge and authority that they went back among tose who had doubted their personal safety in the dark region. The East End, they reported, was nothing like what it was said to be. you could see much worse places up West. The people were quite a decent sort, in their way: shocking Bounders, of course, but quite clean and quiet, and very comfortably dressed, with ties and collars and watches. (54)
A fortnight. Ha. I am only sad this shit still happens all the time, but people call it something else and go to Guatemala or Burkina Faso instead. There is none of that attitude here, which is why it is so good, and why it rings true the way many another story does not. I can’t really understand why Morrison has not won wider acclaim, perhaps I’ll read some London and refresh my memory as to whether this really is so much better. Because I think it probably is.