Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The Big City

In the 1950s, Ronald Searle and Alex Atkinson undertook a new version of Henry Mayhew's 1840s survey: London Labour and the London Poor. The articles appeared in Punch, and although humorous to a degree, and written with a nod to the 'rotund and sentimental' language of the Victorian era, attempted to depict the poverty and degradation that existed very much in their time as in Mayhew's.
It was a melancholic and satirical comment on Britain's 'affluent society', and one that still holds resonance in 2010.
The articles were eventually published in one book, The Big City - or The New Mayhew in 1958. Here are some condensed extracts, with Searle's illustrations.

I gathered that his work-mates were for the most part prepared to acknowledge his existence, if not his right to share their confidences. There were some in fact who inclined to the theory that his colour was his misfortune rather than his sin. These, I learned, were apt to treat him as they would a backward child, or it may be an amusing pet. His remuneration appeared reasonable, for his way of life did not involve any extravagance beyond an occasional visit to the horse races; but a very considerable part of his weekly wage was required to pay for his rent, and he was in consequence very poor. He had secured rooms on the Surrey side of the river, and because of his dark skin he was required to pay far more for the accommodation than seemed equitable, from his description of it.
"Take it or leave it, that's what they tell you, mister. So I take it. Other houses they say 'No coloured, no coloured,' so what can you do? But the English is very nice, they do not kick you out the way. You know why? No colour bar. All equal, but you have to pay more money and nobody want to sit beside you much in the church. [Here he laughed again, and shook his head.] One time I went in a public house, the man served me, I drink, no trouble. Very nice. But all very quiet, not talking, so then I go out. You know why? They waiting all the time for me to rape some ladies and cut people's head off with a razor. You want to know a secret? I never ate a human man out of a pot in all my life, and my mother's brother is a solicitor."
[He laughed so much at this that I was obliged to smile myself a little.]
He had made a few friends among the West Indian population of London. They visited clubs where the music of their country was performed. At other times they walked in the streets at night, wondering what they might do.
I formed the opinion that he was at some pains to persuade himself that he was contented. He was more proud to be British than anyone I ever met.

She had come to London, she told me, some fifteen years previously (her parents then being dead) to take up a position as a shorthand typist in the offices of a firm of string manufacturers in the city. I judged her present age to be thirty-six or thirty-seven. She had a slight cast in one eye and many of her bones were evident.
She has been residing for some years in a house in one of the northern suburbs of London, where she has a room to herself. I learned that this was quite commodious, and contained a bed as well as the usual comforts of a living-room. In one corner, behind a screen, there were facilities for the cooking of simple meals. She had decorated the screen by pasting upon it coloured portraits of the younger members of the Royal Family taken from popular journals of the day, and several of a cinema actor named Tracy. The window of her room afforded an uninterrupted view of a private nursing home standing in its own grounds.
"I like to keep in touch, and move with the times," she said. "Yes, I gave a little party once, in my flat; but it rained rather, and few people came."

The mother of the first lad assured me that he was a good enough son at home, being but seldom there save to sleep, and had rarely threatened her. He had attended school until the age of fifteen, when he was expelled for proposing to stab a student teacher with a clasp knife.
The lad was of a somewhat gypsy aspect, having elaborate sideburns and the coiffure of a woman. His face was as pale as tallow, his demeanour surly. I observed too that his costume appeared partly historical and partly that of a humble worker in rural America. He told me that he thought the name of the Prime Minister at present was Winston, but wasn't too sure, and what did it matter? No, he knew nothing of a Prime Minister's duties and cared less. He would never really use his knife, but had once kicked a young lady in the stomach outside a dance-hall, and would again.
As with many of his kind, his most notable characteristic was a doleful apathy, without even the spark of cynicism to give it liveliness.

There are a few more examples of Searle's illustrations for The Big City here, and copies are available on amazon or abebooks for a few pence should you wish to read more on the other subjects of the book; A Bohemian Soirée in the Metropolis, An Encyclopædia Seller, An Exile, and Sellers of Ice-cream, Nuts, Etc. .... etc...

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