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3: The Rot


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« on: January 22, 2023, 01:52:25 am »

THAT there was much rotting of the spirit in this blistering period, of what we pretentiously term history, was not hidden from me exactly. But I must confess that it was with surprise that, resting my hand carelessly upon a window-sill at our apartment, I found my nails sinking into the wood. The wood in our flat had up till then behaved on all occasions like wood. It was a week later, I think, that putting my hand out in the dark to turn on the light, my finger plunged into the wood of a door. These were my first contacts with the rot.

The following are the main facts about the rot. As might be expected, or it may be better to say, perhaps, as is not to be wondered at, something like a pestilence is ravaging the London buildings about here. They call it "dry rot"—a fungus that consumes the wood. Even the reddest and most beefy-looking buildings are rotting away where they stand, except for those within which the builder is blasting at the affected part with his blow-lamp, putting in new wood for rotted. For one house that is derotted, three remain in a state of rot. The builder is restricted to what can be done with scraps. Wood is a shortage as much as fats in England, and it is the wood that rots, since it belongs to the living order. A black market exists in wood as in everything. It is but a trickle of illicit timber in Rotting Hill.

Hundreds of streets in London were uninhabited during much of the six years of war, the houses shuttered and fireless. In the damp winters the fungoid condition, the dry rot, developed in the beams, joists, architraves, jambs, window-frames, floorboards of these unlived-in places. As it is, when decomposition has gone so far that you can poke your finger into the wood of a mantelpiece as if it were made of cheese, an order may be obtained for a few slices of timber out of government stock. The condition of flagrant rot is checked by a sceptical inspector.

Compared with Hamburg, or Dresden, London is unmarked. Then the Nazis were such great gentlemen they mostly bombed the poor. Yet every district has its quota of gaps or of ruins, and these wet draughty weed-gardens—rain-filled cavities of cellars that have lost their houses—serve I think to prolong the rot. Many of the gaps and ruins we know will remain. The present rulers are in no hurry to reconstitute London as it was: they have not much love, in fact, for Dick Whittington's city. If actually it did drop to pieces it would not break their hearts. So there it is, a monstrous derelict of a city—always the first to be bombed, the last to receive its allotment of bananas when a shipment of them docks at Bristol (the manufacturing North because of the big labour towns is favoured) and so it is with all unrationed delicacies: unpopular as a capital with the ruling intellectuals as the traditional headquarters of the Court, too redolent as well of history—womb of the Mother of Parliaments in an age impatient of parliaments; haunted by the stout shades of those parliament men Hampden, Eliot, and Pym—reeking in their nostrils of freedom: London, built upon a bog and cursed with world-famous fogs: every house in it that has a crack from the blast of a bomb and dies at last of chronic dry rot, and is carted off to the potter's field for decayed old buildings, is to be congratulated.

Like Vienna, this city has no meaning henceforward. It is too vast a head for so puny a body—since most of the gargantuan colonial padding that made Britain (Great Britain!) look so enormous has been shed—as an actor playing Falstaff, the play done, unhooks his make-believe belly and unpacks his bloated limbs. So we get down to the actual modest dimensions. True, we still swell airily in vacuo, an immense bubble of 50 million souls, blown out with American dollars. But that will burst. It cannot do otherwise—when the next war comes, or the next American slump, or even without them—than explode with a sickening roar.

Up on Rotting Hill, beamed on by Negroes, shadowed by Afrikanders, displaced in queues by displaced persons, ignored by Brahmins, run over by hasty "fiddlers" of various extraction, we are foreign (or like a town in the U.S.) and people come and go. The shops are full of xenophobic growlings but there are no bitings. The houses are camps, towering brick camps, with gouged out clammy basements, packed with transients. We are famous for our spivs. But that is a disreputable élite, and there is the rank and file. A newsagent where I deal divides our co-citizens into two main groups: (1) Those who bet; and (2) Those addicted to spiritualism. This he bases upon the papers and magazines most in demand, and of which he stocks and sells fantastic numbers. The second of these passions, the occultist, finds its votaries mainly among the English. But with those who play the horses there is nothing so narrowly national.

Better lose your money on a horse or a dog than be fooled out of it! They speak like that. As to mysticism, and its big vogue (five "lodges" in Rotting Hill): people troop as they are now doing to sit entranced before pythonesses who bring tidings from the other side of death to enable them to turn their backs if only for a while upon life—more vile and ill-smelling daily. Not the stench of power-politics alone, of which the press is full, but the decomposition of the public will is perhaps the worst wretchedness of all, Aneurin B.'s version of a will-less society being too exclusive. Though the occultist fans do not proceed to analysis, anything but—they merely feel that "nothing is worth while".

On Rotting Hill the rubbish is still collected on Saturdays, but nevertheless the pavements are littered—with Rotting-hillers. Some get stuck in doorways. I picked one up under a lamp-post the other day and took him up to draw. He sat well, staring blankly at the blankness of my walls. He had practically no will left. Had I boxed his ears—instead of giving him half a crown—he would have wobbled about a little but that is all. The public's reactions are so jaded that it has sunk almost to coolie levels. The English had a public conscience as big as a house. But its fibre is devoured. It is completely rotted. Sanctimonious busy-bodies no longer, they are very callous, their own lot exciting them as little as that of others. If you informed the public that fifty thousand Finns or Italians had been massacred—by anybody—it would have as much effect as if you informed it that fifty thousand mackerel had been caught. Take away tomorrow all its sugar, for instance, and all butcher's meat (without replacing the latter by anything, except what only the richest can buy). Nothing would happen, except that people would develop complaints for which a sugarless and proteinless diet is responsible. And of course there is no tax you cannot impose upon the English. They expect it.

This picture is only overpainted if you wish for an under-painting of it. For there is no moderate image of atomic politics, national bankruptcy, murderous taxation, black-market immunity, jobbery, world-inflation, populations drained of hope. But no picture at all exists in the case of massive sections of our society. These reactions—even largely it might be said these conditions—do not apply to a massive minority of our people. For of course there are those who have so little they are hardly taxable: even some who—talking of meat—never had much meat. (Their wives might beg a scrap off the fat butcher. But there were no ration-books as today, conferring a right to the best meats in the shop. The slum butcher too is officially allotted under rationing the same quality meat as the butcher for the Ritz or for the King and he gets it.) If the untaxables, and lower than them the obligatory vegetarians under Victoria, got to themselves a picture, it would be starry-bright in 1948. The ration-book is their charter. Supertax is a tax levied for their beautiful eyes. But at all levels the working class, even the quite taxable, is elated: the source of the elation being even more sentimental than economic.

I find I have been providing with a deeper perspective than I had intended my narrative of the rot. One rot truly is involved in another rot. From the epidemic ravaging "better-class" houses to the decay of the classes for which they were built is a logical transition. Returning, finally, to the immediate business of the rot in our apartment: up to the time that one of the windows began to leave its socket and the wind to rush in I made no move. Then of course I did. Upon the telephone the landlord, or more exactly his deputy, informed me sighing that he knew what it was. Oh he did! I remarked disagreeably. But he answered gruffly that in other parts of the building—comprising a number of shops and apartments—there were very bad cases. I was not unfortunately the only one—he wished I was.

His builder's specialist, a cockney carpenter, was at hand; in fact he was at work upon a rapidly rotting off-licence. He presented himself at once, and flung himself into the tracking of the rot with the avidity of a ferret. Upstairs and downstairs, in this "maisonette", he tracked it down, charting his progress upon a piece of soiled paper.

The carpenter looked me over this first time—I had answered his off-hand knocks—as if probing for symptoms of the malignant fungus which was disintegrating our premises. Evidently he found me built of some substance inhospitable to the rot. He lost interest. The little fires went out in his eyes. But the fact that I was uninteresting because unpleasantly free of dry rot did not endear me to him, or cause him to forget that with a fraction of the money I squandered on my books, he could build an A One rabbit hutch and get Minnie (daughter) the openings to make her a Screen Star. Young Fred (son) might shine too, in some capacity, if less glamorously. Now, to indulge this urgent son of toil, Fred (the carpenter's name as well as that of his son) had been led to understand—not by me—that yes, in forty-eight hours, work on part of the nether premises could begin. I now said No. He evinced no surprise. It is only nice people with dry rot in them somewhere (as in one mood he would feel and from one angle) who can be depended on to say yes all the time. The rot softens the fibres of the will. Dry rotted yes-people are as clay in the hands of carpenters.

As I listened subsequently to this man amok in the bedroom underneath, I recalled the humped humanity that shuffled off, cool and relaxed, when he found I was a no-person. He had shrugged his humped shoulders and snarled a cockney half-smile at me, with one evil tooth, saying, "Very good, sir. It's as you wish." Actually I was worse as he saw it than the rotten, in and out of whose residences he moved with such dark satisfaction. I belonged to the rot—to a rotted social class: was tenant in a building rotted down to its cellars, lived after an outmoded pattern (a "blooming artist")—rotted and was answerable for rot—rot which began to hem me in, madly nourished by my antediluvian life-habits. That the dry rot was the landlord's affair was, of course, a major factor. I did not pay. Not paying, I was at most an obstruction, not a source of authority.

The carpenter stood out from the rest of the workmen by reason of the fact that he worked. He must have had a big crack in his palate which he had cemented up, he spoke stiffly, where his mouth writhed up on to his cheek, out of a bitter hole. He had dirty eyes—the face was so untidy no eyes could have looked otherwise, to be sure, but they were bloodshot themselves, and of tobacco-colour green, with embers of hot red. The public house and the blow-lamp between them had perpetuated facial eruptions. An uncut moustache served as a disreputable valance for the mouth. The chin in its cockney droop marked him as a spectator of his own aggressions.

As it was very difficult for me to leave London at that time, the arrangement was that while the builders were downstairs we should live upstairs. The downstairs finished, we should change places, they coming up to the studio floor. And such was the order followed. When the carpenter began work it was in the nether premises, in some respects the more rotten of the two. We had, according to plan, gone to live on the upper floor.

When first we were informed that our apartment must be derotted, we had not the remotest idea of what awaited us. It only slowly dawned on us that this was a major operation, at which we were to assist. But we did not have to wait long for enlightenment. As a fact, the carpenter moved in to pull down, weeks before the building-up again could start, the order not having come through from the Town Hall releasing the necessary material. Neurotic as this man was, he could not keep his hands off it. He would have demolished the entire building had it lain in his power to do so—the entire quarter, too: and, on a particularly good day, all of Greater London.

The realization of what we had let ourselves in for involved a dual shock. First we saw that we were to cohabit with earthquake. Secondly came understanding of the time factor; in other words, the immense mouthfuls of time demanded by this inane operation, because—oh, because of the same crass agency that eats up all the rest of our time, in wars, in queues, in rot, in all the subsidiaries of the central inhumanity of man. We had some such figure as three weeks in our minds at the beginning, or a little over. But a sleepy lazy gang (living in a Dalton daydream of booming wages, cheap money, short hours) could make such short work in every sense of three weeks that if you told the time by their handiwork it would seem to be three days that had passed, not three weeks.

The preliminary stripping of the place, parking of furniture in a grey mass, was unexpectedly disagreeable. There are different ways of stripping a life, of disintegrating a domestic organism. There are seemly, even ceremonious, undressings. There is everything, between an invitation to a pleasing déshabillé, and a brutal debagging. There is a way of turning a chair upside down (if that chair has known all its life the pressure of your bottom) that is an affront, or of handing down an oil-painting of a Buckinghamshire backyard from its nail that is an outrage.

The invasion actually began—with the stripping and stacking for its breathless overture—when we were only half awake. The carpenter and his mates, this first time, were shuffling about outside the front door long before 8 a.m. At 9 we left them, Mrs. Clark having set out our breakfast of "hot roll mix" (from a friend in Baton Rouge), Cuban Honey (a friend in New York), fried eggs (from another friend, in Montreal), and tea on the ration; expressive of what the tea-merchants of Colombo think of their ex-lords and masters. At ten we sat in our vast roof-room, digesting the disagreeable reality downstairs. "I feel like a bruised grape in a basketful of glass marbles," observed my wan wife, quoting a Canadian tulip.

Then—preceded by a brief silence, upstairs and downstairs, and as it seemed outside as well—the first blow fell. "Ye olde Cottage" effect, produced we discovered partly by authentic wooden beams (now turning, of course, into mushrooms), in part plaster boxes masquerading as beams—all that went first. This we divined at the time, and afterwards inspection confirmed, since the ceiling eight or nine inches under the soles of our shoes jumped violently. We were glad the rot had found out so palpable a fake as the archaic rafters, of which we were ashamed if anything: but the carpenter thought his blows fell upon our hearts. The plaster boxes, beneath repeated blows from his axe, and the hammers of his men, came crashing down. We recognized immediately that we, and not the plaster, were the true target of the assault.

With what frenzy of accumulated resentment this stunted man, deformed with toil, flung himself upon us. The rot was, no one could doubt it, his master passion. But he was socially minded—he knew how to give his rot an historico-economic perspective too, being no fool like the painters (without exceptions) and deeper than the plasterer. We and the rot were one, we were involved as if we had been wood. Was it not our rot? The rot existed for us. If there was a fungus here instead of the wood which honest workmen forty years before had lifted into place, we had produced the fungus—an emanation of social decay. Were it eventually necessary to pull down the house, we ought to be demolished with it. Such was the line of feeling at least of the mastermind among what eventually became an army of invaders.

The token liquidation was taking place in the room in which we slept, so we congratulated ourselves upon having so thoroughly emptied it beforehand. A shambles of plaster and wood must suddenly be there—though when later we actually saw the rugged landscape of piled-up débris we were astonished: and now it sounded as if the carpenter were savaging the walls. But almost buckling the floor, the timber of the chairs in which we sat recording a maximal shock, they burst out into a short passage, and, in an exceptionally paranoiac rush of the carpenter's a cataract of plaster which must have shaken Marble Arch smote the floor of our nether premises.

"Is this in fact token class-war?" was my question: and my life-mate answered and laughed: "It is so to speak token class-war." "Is it not getting out of hand?" I pondered aloud. "There is, in effect, a sensible deterioration," came the response, "in the situation, as that regards the workmen in our nether premises." I recommenced: "Is this in fact hatred for those who dwell in posh dry-rotted flats...?" "Not posh. Dry-rotted." But I resumed: "Of relative magnificence, in select neighbourhood—yes, in this fringe of Rotting Hill we rub up against admirals and generals and tread on brigadiers—in their turn they bathe across the mews from Millionaires. Comparatively modest as our abode may be, it exceeds the limits of his dwarf exchequer." (I cast my eye down through the ceiling at the carpenter.) "We are economic giants to his pigmy purse. If men were their money he would reach to my knees."

So, thinly disguised as care for the health of buildings, it was reaching the point of open confessions—when, axe in hand, the carpenter would appear at the head of the stairs and snarl:

"You can keep your plaster and your rotten wood, Mr. Lewis! You are the dry rot I'm after!" At the latest mountainous fall of plaster underneath, I allowed my eyes to rest upon a drawer where an old, rusted, practically token, revolver probably was.

Having engaged for some days in unrestrained and wholesale destruction, the carpenter and his mates melted away. They left behind them exposed and mutilated ceilings, gaping floors, bald patches, gashes, rents, and holes everywhere; tottering doors, unframed windows. I had not had much contact with the carpenter. So far as I was concerned one day he and the others failed to appear, that was all. The usual noises failed to occur. There was peace. And so day after day, peace. Still this peace of course was outrageous too, because we wanted to occupy our apartment, not remain camped in a corner of it. On the telephone the builder acquainted me with the true position. Nothing could be done until the order came through.

For the rest, the carpenter had done just as he pleased. Provided he did not injure my goods I could not—as he knew—stop him from knocking the walls down if he liked. There was no supervision. No one in Rotting Hill in 1947—landlord or builder or anybody—cared enough about what happened to climb a flight of forty stairs, or for that matter to cross the street. My own outburst was awaited. With sultry anticipatory glee the carpenter slogged unnecessary objects unnecessarily hard at inconvenient times. Apart from clearing him unceremoniously out of the toilet where invariably he took up his stand, blow-lamp at full blast, around the time he knew access would, to late breakfasters, be imperative, no scintilla of criticism could he carry off to magnify for the purpose of complaints-about-complaints: "As usual, interference on part of tenant with work of man doing his job!" He interested me too much for me to feel anger. Still I was in no mood to furnish amusement. Otherwise I might have cursed him for making an uncalled-for noise, or ignoring the little fact that I after all paid the rent. That was what he wanted.

Now all the lower region of our apartment was a shrouded place of dirt and gloom. A plasterer's mixing table straddled where a comfortable bed should be: for the plasterer and his mate had joined the carpenter upon the last day of the destruction. The Christmas black-out was the next thing to happen. So it was in fact a month or more before we saw a workman again. The plasterer came first of the main group: with him men carrying breeze cakes and sacks of cement. Then our new life began in earnest: except that often there would be a blank of two or three days, or once a week: the non-delivery of long-overdue wood-substitute accounting, they said, for the idle week.

The workers in general were sleepily, carelessly "respectful", distant, except for the odd reader of the Daily Worker. All English workmen were and are a little intoxicated with events. At long bloody last their government was in and was socialist. The days of the classes over them—calmly squatting on top—were numbered. Building trade workers as ours were—they knew. Didn't they go into all kinds of homes: of the rich that once was (pots o' money!) who used to keep two housemaids, a cook and a chauffeur and now had a dirty old char! Startling changes—they came across them everywhere.

Slow, halting, and meaningful spoke to one these cockney eyes, blue, brown, green and grey: indirect, still cowed in the presence of the "educated", still with their old superstitions about rank, submissive as ever to a Lady Jingle Jones—they spoke in flashes. An exultant gutter-tongue, talked by dancing eyes, language of the small sooty shells of the cockney family unit (the blackened doll's-house with white washing on a line seen from the Golden Arrow) radiantly hailing their novel status in the new day—inferiority lifted from them for keeps. Sun-dazzled earth-worms—slaves in the Senate. Might for the Midget—Madness—MILLENNIUM.

The awakening, one felt, was of something of extraordinary age. Was not this the liberation of a being accustomed to restraint since the days of the theow, laet, esne, or earlier? So it was a little terrible. Has not most "liberation" in our hypocrite century proved phoney—to use the proper cheap and ugly word for what is thus exactly described? Their behaviour was in any case that of prisoners set free, or of birds released from a cage. Has England then been a concentration camp for the "lower orders", the third estate; and was the barbed wire removed and were the sentries marched off in 1945? They disported themselves, to celebrate the end of bondage, and I was too friendly toward them and too sorry for them to complain. But they relieved me of my small steel chopper.

---

Our section of six flats does not enjoy access to or give access to the other parts of the building. Upon its large autonomous stone stairway six or seven painters were at work. Their songs, shouted conversations, betokened a natural buoyancy, at having won the war, won the election, won the right to sing rather than paint. Like much joy, it was ugly. Everybody recoiled from it. But it had the pleasing effect of silencing the artificial buoyancy of the contralto Star in apartment 3, which she shared with a Czech woman-doctor, unlike herself a pessimist. It was her custom, taking herself up and down the spacious stairs, to do so with brio, and full-throated song—to demonstrate how beautiful, youthful, and successful she was, though in fact none of these things, as all of us knew. Or if the remains of youth were still hers, it need not, one felt, have chosen to die so noisily. As it was, if a watery English sun gazed blearily in at the window, she would richly and brilliantly exclaim "What a glamorous day!" Well, the painters put a stop to both the singing and expressions of youthful ecstasy: and neither, after the painters' departure, were renewed. They out-sang her and out-shouted her. They out-youthed her: and lastly they out-successfulled her too. For were they not Dalton's boys? And they were the merriest, noisiest, laziest in this bankrupt land—where "too much money chases too few goods" but what of it? On the Utility level nix is in short supply. We live on Utility level, for ever and ever—what of it? there won't be no other. Hurrah for Utility-life, with money to burn in Austerity Street, at the blooming old pub at the corner. Hurrah! cried the painters as they smoked their Weights, Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!

Why men should work any harder than that (for the painters hardly worked at all) or be any less merry I myself can never see. What is life for—to make carthorses out of monkeys? People invent objects for life. They attempt to drive us on to what they label "targets", as if we were bullets. I secretly applauded these slothful and light-hearted workers—and almost forgave them for deliberately making it so difficult to get in and out of the house and attempting one day to ruin a glorious overcoat they resented my having. But they had better luck with the musquash of a neighbour, to which they did a lot of damage—partly high-spirits of course. Yet every morning I would open the newspaper and, harsh and minatory, the words of Cripps, economic Czar, would challenge my easy-going humanism. Just the opposite he argued to what I felt. Men must work themselves to the bone, most monotonously he repeated. To close the gap between exports and imports. To close the gap. To CLOSE the GAP! There was evidently no gap in the building trade, or no one was conscious of any gap to fill, except in the belly and the bladder.

Here, in outline, was our workmen's working day. At 8 a.m. the workmen were supposed to arrive and start work, and the staircase painters were subject to the same time-table. In practice our workmen arrived not at 8, but 8.30. By a quarter to nine usually noises would be heard: the day's work had begun. At 10 they left in a body for tea. They returned at 10.30. At 12 o'clock they knocked off for dinner. At 1 o'clock they returned. This was the longest spell, namely two hours, passed of course in talk and in work mixed and alternating: in visits and counter-visits between rotworkers in different apartments, or flat-workers and painters, or outside friends working across the road or round the corner, or plumbers at a loose end, or marking time between two assignments of burst pipes or stuck plugs. At 3 they left for tea. At 3.30 they returned. At 4.30 they began tidying up and preparing to leave. At 5 o'clock they left. The day's work was over.

After a few weeks we grew tired of their joy. But when at last work moved upstairs, and we had them overhead—plasterers, painters, electricians and carpenters on occasion all at one time—their joy became for us an agony. One day I met the master plasterer hurrying out. Through his cement-grimed lips, coldly cross, he muttered: "Nothing but a blooming boys' school up there. The noise they're making I shall be glad when they hop it, all of them!" The plasterer alluded to two diminutive boy-electricians and a friend—the firm seemingly had no grown-up workmen to spare in that department. With what misgivings I had watched them for a moment gambolling and frisking as they attended to our lighting system! The boss looked around fourteen. No wonder boys are impossible to get for messenger offices as bell-hops, or to do errands. Later I could hear their shrill shrieks of delight and bumpittybump went the ceiling. Because these noise-makers were so minuscule, in so remote an age-class from himself, the plasterer could see them and hear them. Even he left the house in disgust. But when the whole place rocked with heavyweight lightheartedness his eardrums recorded it, if at all, with indulgence. But to finish with these problem-guests—my big house-party to hunt the rot, which, like barbaric celebrations, endured for many weeks. The end came in pandemonium. Finally it was to heavyweight aggression I succumbed. I had been writing, and I was reading by myself in the lower flat. The book in my hand bristled with examples of injustice, the poor man wronged, the worker cheated: whether authentic or not who could say? A propagandist record of experiences in Stalinist Russia, for which a Trotsky adherent was responsible.

I put down what I was reading very often to reflect on the inner meanings of this sort of book (if you chopped away enough of the humbug of politics to contact the inner truths); of the material with which power worked, the human mass namely, and the numerous disguises adopted by power—disguises imposed by the sensitivity of the human material, by the dangers involved in handling energies so disproportionately vast compared with the physical insignificance of the "master mind". Power does not like to have a bronco beneath it—meaning a violent or spirited people. Problems of political liberty presented themselves of course. But political liberty is not an Asiatic commodity, and I doubt if it can be a Russian—not as my friends upstairs would have understood the free. You would not have discovered it, in the ancient world, anywhere on the Asiatic or African shores of the Latin Sea. The Romans and Germans practised it at different times. England is eccentric, but it has excelled as a great and celebrated centre of liberty for the privileged.

The English have bred as spectacular a breed of underdogs as any dog-lover could wish! But at last, approaching mid-century, the whole of that great dog has been dragged out from underneath in Britain: and does he shake himself and bark hysterically! He does that. And shows few signs of wanting to bite the decadent old top dog, who does not seem to mind much either, but queues up for bones and quietly takes those bottom dog doesn't want. It is a superb feat! (I grew enthusiastic as I thought of the whole of this vast dog.) He will never go back again—not in the same place anyway, or beneath the same dog. Whether in Russia they had ever had, even for a few weeks at the beginning, that grand feeling, was very doubtful: that sensation of being free men which our people ... Brrrromp!

The entire house shuddered with their freedom.

I sat pulverized. There had never been so inconsiderate a fury of undisciplined joy by the upstairs workers. The longer the job dragged on, the more careless they became. But these men were intoxicated with what I still regard as a sacred beverage—liberty. I was ruled by this great liberal scruple. As they scuffled and kicked around overhead, choking with the hysteria of the Harrow Road, gulping with Hammersmith fun, for a ball they used, I imagined, a wad of my old newspapers, tied up in an oil rag. They had before. Their trampling was atrocious. I put my book away and stood up. The shindy grew in wild intemperance. "Goal," panted the fat painter. What goal? (Once you unchain one who has never tasted freedom, his wild ego will know no limit. But I did not desire to be the person to recall these men to order.) I put on my hat and moved silently out, as in certain circumstances, rather than strike a man, one would abruptly make haste to leave a room. As I went I thought of bread and circuses, of Clodius who petted the plebs in preparation for the coming of a despot—the great prototype of modern dictators. Not that any of the hills of the Rome of antiquity were Rotting Hills. The rot was in the valleys between. There it was worse than with us: frequently, it seems, houses would cave in, shop-property be demolished by spontaneous collapse. Little wonder when we think of the six storeyed tenements, renting not rooms but bunks, so that easily two or three hundred persons could be packed into one smallish building. I have never read anywhere that the Romans had the rot: probably their houses dropped to pieces from other causes.

As, still absorbed (thinking of Rome partly I suppose in order to clothe raw realities in a classical remoteness), I descended the newly-painted Roman stairway, the sun gilding the shimmering dust of the windowpanes, the uproar from the open door above receded. But I found myself obliged—if I were to continue at all with my parallel—considerably to deromanize my image of the time. Though a dictator might be expected here long before the century's end, that after all was not because London resembled the Rome of Clodius—which already was like New York or more so. Beside Paris or Vienna, London is a centre, not a city. We improvise ways of civilized living in it, and it is a centre, though otherwise a place of about the same natural glamour as Bradford or Nottingham. From our apartment now came a thud, a muffled bellow of blurred noise with it. A goal! The shock-tactics of the fat painter doubtless responsible, the neat footwork of the bricklayer's mate no match for a rushing avalanche of fat. The young plasterer's mate passed at a gallop, with a friendly grimace, windmilling with one arm as he forced it into his jacket.

Once outside I moved quickly along—no further need to disguise the fact that I was in flight from joy. I was met by a contradictory sight—to what went on chez moi, I mean, a flat contradiction. Road workers were remaking sections of the road. They worked under the direction of foremen, who never left the road, and the men never stopped: they seldom spoke to one another, except about what they were doing. I only saw them laugh once: a young elegant from behind a bank-counter loftily sauntered a shade too near where a load of slimy pebbles was being discharged. He jumped—but a neat granitic spray pelted all over his nice new trousers and nice sports-coat. The burst of laughter was unrestrained—not insulting. The road-workers were trained to work quickly, they were the same men who had made the airfields during the war, and remade them at top speed. Eight drills, for instance, each as explosive as a motor-bike, were in massed action, blasting down to the eighteen-inch line of the specification, and though there was no rushing but concentrated deliberation—of progressive unmaking, layer by layer, and then of remaking, from earth-line to the street-level—the tension of the time-table was felt. Were these Irish workmen? People said so in the shops. But this may have only been because it was an Irish contractor and the men were small. Here was the gang: and there was the ganger. This is how my house-party of rot-hunters must work one day, when the honeymoon is over. I do not say this with satisfaction: in theory at least I am all for football and song.

We keep a window box for birds. When there is some sun, watching sparrows rolling in our mould, sparring with one another in featherweight skirmishings upon the rim of the box—but a matter of fifteen feet above the ferocious marmalade cat on the roof beneath: shaking the sooty earth out of their wings, or sometimes asleep, become drowsy in the sheltered warmth—this is very pleasant indeed. The author of Far Away and Long Ago did a good job on the London Sparrow. I have always liked the common finch, that plebeian bird, as ordinary as grass. Whatever effort I made, however, I could not, I knew, find the joy of the brick-layers, painters and plasterers, pleasant, or see them as big human sparrows. Their class has no part in this—their dirty clothes and husky voices—there is an obstacle to our sharing the joy of adults of our species indiscriminately, as we can with birds or many quadrupeds. The rich contrive to repel us in their way, the poor in theirs.

Crossing to the other side of the street, I reached, in the next block up, the office of Thomas Cook and Sons. Those ornamental places advertised in the window, the archaic glamour of Cook's placard-world, were not my destination. I was going to Llanmaerth. I put my hand up to open the door, but found myself looking at the carpenter and stopped. He had come up close to my side. "Where did you spring from!" I enquired. "I didn't spring, sir, at all. I was walking. I was just behind you." "Ah!" I gave him a stern look. He admitted he had followed me. The carpenter gave in return his half-grin, in the midst of his discoloured cheek. "If you was going away, sir." As if some ugly wind had blown upon them, the embers in his tobacco-green eyes sulphurously sparkled, with their minute red particles of fire. "If you was ..." But the carpenter was a lone wolf: I felt no responsibility as regards his joy—which in any case was confined to destruction. "If I was?" I asked. "Well, there's one place Harry, that's the plasterer, told me I'd missed in the toilet, where the rot...." "The rot?" "Yes, the dry rot, sir ..." "In the toilet the rot will remain!" I found myself saying, to my surprise. I could never have been rude to the plasterer, or spoken discourteously to the bricklayer, nor have turned my back upon a painter. I turned my back squarely upon the carpenter, as I burst my way almost into Cook's. I was going to taste liberty as well.

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