I don't work any more because I don't work any more.
Arts, crafts and reality.
The ramblings of someone with time……………
On BBC South East news was an article about the arts and crafts movement and their glorious house. I can’t remember where it was but the report was full of fine words. In the 19th century, England was a country exploding with industrial power.
The vision of William Morris and his followers was for an England teeming with industrious craftsmen tucked away in little studios producing pleasing artefacts for people to handle and admire. It’s a delightful window into a dream world of pleasant fluffiness. It was about as far removed from reality as I am from running a marathon.
We could say the same for the lake poets, the Bloomsbury Group, the Pre-Raphaelites and the anti industrialist artists.
Money was available, talents were nurtured, people were exploited, drugs were taken and privilege was exercised. The art was exquisite. Not always to my taste but it was clear that it was being crafted from skilled hands.
Nineteenth century reality is well documented but how do we see it from today? Is it a sort of burlesque freak show where we can almost laugh at the wretched lives of the working classes? A family of sixteen in one room alongside countless other huge families in back to back slums and only one toilet for each block?
All that gossip in the queue for the khazi. There would be lewd comments about smells and substances. Grannies would be shouting for expedience. All very “Carry On” amusing except that people would have to go where they stood or crouched. Toilet lines are not for the faint hearted.
To really get into the true history we have to go beyond the quirkiness of Dickens and the hordes of beautifully illustrated children’s history books. We need to hear about cruelty and injustice through primary sources; not through watered down text books.
We need to smell the sweat and rub our hands in the filth.
The trouble with Victorian history or the nineteenth century in general is the multitude of spectacular distractions.
Bustles and bosoms.
The birth of the motorcar.
Inventions, inventions, inventions.
How many crazy new ideas resulted in a wake of abject human misery? We hear and read of carnage on the battlefield and the random brutality of the war machine but we are less likely to come across death in the workplace or the consequences for the match workers.
Real history is stripped of any romantic gloss. It should make us shake with fear and cry in pity.
Do we know how cities and industrial centres developed? Putting it simply, after centuries of local family farming, working and living off the land, that great beast of the Industrial Revolution led the way for machine driven farming.
Land became enclosed and people had to move. The nature of life was changing. Can you imagine what it would have been like for a teenage girl or boy to encounter London for the first time? From a life in the sticks to the stinking pit of a city. All those people and very little sanitation. They had to walk there; miles and miles, carrying all they could:
“Back on the main track, Thomas’ manner changed. He now looked far more comfortable. He began straining his eyes, staring straight ahead. He stopped in his tracks before putting a hand to his ear:
“There’s a band coming.”
“A band coming?”
“Yes, bands of poor folk come along this way. They carry all their belongings, walking all slow and sad. They’re going to the city.”
“Why?” I asked. Thomas could hardly wait to explain. He was beginning to sound quite animated:
“All around us, men and their families are turned off their land. Men with guns and swords take their things and dump them outside their houses. Then they burn the houses. My father says they’ve been on there for hundreds of years and now they have to go to the city. I’ve heard them. I’ve heard their cries and screams. I’ve seen them die at the roadside and get their bodies thrown onto the marsh.”
Thomas had a habit of staring at me when he wanted to say something important. His voice then went from high and excited to low and deliberate. “Better let the marsh have them than pay a penny or two for their graves. They don’t leave anything on them but the clothes they die in. I’ve looked. My dad made me. I’ve seen them lying on their backs, staring up to the sky, all cold and stiff.” The thought was chilling. I was too shocked to respond. Thomas’ cold intense stare was making me too nervous to speak.
This was history at the sharp end. Nothing had moved me like this before. I desperately wanted my phone so I could record what he was saying and to film the approaching band of people. But I didn’t have it. My record would be my memory-a memory without evidence. We continued to stare into the distance.
Sure enough, within a short space of time I could see a collection of dark slow moving shadows. There was no sound. I thought of the long sombre funeral processions I had seen on television, after someone famous had died. From this distance it seemed like one single, shuddering dark mass.
+t was not anything drawn in a book or a scene from a history film. Every one of those people, living and breathing in front of me, were on their way to a life of dreadful hardship.
“Would they believe me?” I thought. “A twelve year old boy in strange modern clothes?” I stayed rooted to the spot. There was nothing I could have done; nothing I could control.
Turning to Thomas, to ask him where they were from, I was surprised to see that he had disappeared. I hadn’t even noticed. As the tail end of the grey parade passed by I spotted him emerging from the crowd. He was carrying something heavy. He looked around him before sprinting back to our hiding place.
Thomas was grinning at me. In his grasp was a large blackened cast iron pot, complete with lid. He placed it on the ground between us, lifted the lid and put his bagged rabbit inside. As he banged the lid back down he let out a yell of triumph:
“A perfect fit. A perfect fit!” As we scrambled to our feet he smiled broadly, revealing his chipped yellowing teeth. “My father will be truly pleased. Now let’s get it to the cottage.” He held it against his stomach as he started moving again. I followed.”
From The Ghost of Hartington Hall.
At least in the countyside there was more space to be discrete.
The art however; it still shines through. in old terrace houses we savour the signs of the past. Iron fire places, cornices, decorative brickwork and tiled floors are treasured.
They make the house more attractive to sell.
The deeds of a house I bought declared that I should not be allowed to boil horse flesh or skin cats whilst on the premises. In the back some workers uncovered a shared well. It was real. I was seeing proper history before my eyes.
Some days I never leave the house. I don’t need to but put me back even fifty years and there would be coal to collect and outside toilets to visit.
The waterfront of Liverpool is now a shining example of a city’s transformation. I thought the Liver Buildings were made of black stone but that was pollution.
Coal fires ruled. They fired our power and warmed our homes.
I remember Liverpool having three train stations; Central, Exchange and Lime Street. Between Central and Lime Street stood the famous Adelphi hotel. It was black. All that coal in the buildings and the steam trains. I don’t know too much about Liverpool docks but they went on for miles. The tell tale signs of old railway lines twisted in and around the mills and warehouses.
On the Wallasey side was a twelve platform rail terminal and a station at Woodside.
Every building was as black as the coal that made it so. This evidence spilled into my own life time. What I couldn’t see however, was the cruelty and brutality of life.
If we visit these old industrial centres, there will always be exhibitions and shows vaunting a glorious past. Some civic architecture can be stunning.
The art work in all forms can be seen as a reactionary statement to changing times.
It points to other worlds and still, for a lot of pople, that world is imaginary.