Downstairs there was a kitchen common to all lodgers, with free firing and a supply of cooking-pots, tea-basins, and toasting-forks. There were two great clinker fires, which were kept burning day and night the year through. The work of tending the fires, sweeping the kitchen and making the beds was done by the lodgers in rotation. One senior lodger, a fine Norman-looking stevedore named Steve, was known as ‘head of the house’, and was arbiter of disputes and unpaid chucker-out.
I liked the kitchen. It was a low-ceiled cellar deep underground, very hot and drowsy with coke fumes, and lighted only by the fires, which cast black velvet shadows in the corners. Ragged washing hung on strings from the ceiling. Red-lit men, stevedores mostly, moved about the fires with cooking-pots; some of them were quite naked, for they had been laundering and were waiting for their clothes to dry. At night there were games of nap and draughts, and songs—‘I’m a chap what’s done wrong by my parents,’ was a favourite, and so was another popular song about a shipwreck. Sometimes late at night men would come in with a pail of winkles they had bought cheap, and share them out. There was a general sharing of food, and it was taken for granted to feed men who were out of work. A little pale, wizened creature, obviously dying, referred to as ‘pore Brown, bin under the doctor and cut open three times,’ was regularly fed by the others.
Two or three of the lodgers were old-age pensioners. Till meeting them I had never realized that there are people in England who live on nothing but the old-age pension often shillings a week. None of these old men had any other resource whatever. One of them was talkative, and I asked him how he managed to exist. He said:
‘Well, there’s ninepence a night for yer kip—that’s five an’ threepence a week. Then there’s threepence on Saturday for a shave—that’s five an’ six. Then say you ’as a ’aircut once a month for sixpence—that’s another three’apence a week. So you ’as about four an’ four-pence for food an’ bacca.’
He could imagine no other expenses. His food was bread and margarine and tea—towards the end of the week dry bread and tea without milk—and perhaps he got his clothes from charity. He seemed contented, valuing his bed and fire more than food. But, with an income of ten shillings a week, to spend money on a shave—it is awe-inspiring.
All day I loafed in the streets, east as far as Wapping, west as far as Whitechapel. It was queer after Paris; everything was so much cleaner and quieter and drearier. One missed the scream of the trams, and the noisy, festering life of the back streets, and the armed men clattering through the squares. The crowds were better dressed and the faces comelier and milder and more alike, without that fierce individuality and malice of the French. There was less drunkenness, and less dirt, and less quarrelling, and more idling. Knots of men stood at all the corners, slightly underfed, but kept going by the tea-and-two-slices which the Londoner swallows every two hours. One seemed to breathe a less feverish air than in Paris. It was the land of the tea urn and the Labour Exchange, as Paris is the land of the bistro and the sweatshop.
It was interesting to watch the crowds. The East London women are pretty (it is the mixture of blood, perhaps), and Limehouse was sprinkled with Orientals—Chinamen, Ghittagonian lascars, Dravidians selling silk scarves, even a few Sikhs, come goodness knows how. Here and there were street meetings. In Whitechapel somebody called The Singing Evangel undertook to save you from hell for the charge of sixpence. In the East India Dock Road the Salvation Army were holding a service. They were singing ‘Anybody here like sneaking Judas?’ to the tune of ‘What’s to be done with a drunken sailor?’ On Tower Hill two Mormons were trying to address a meeting. Round their platform struggled a mob of men, shouting and interrupting. Someone was denouncing them for polygamists. A lame, bearded man, evidently an atheist, had heard the word God and was heckling angrily. There was a confused uproar of voices.
‘My dear friends, if you would only let us finish what we were saying—!—That’s right, give ’em a say. Don’t get on the argue!—No, no, you answer me. Can you show me God? You show ’im me, then I’ll believe in ’im.—Oh, shut up, don’t keep interrupting of ’em!—Interrupt yourself!—polygamists!—Well, there’s a lot to be said for polygamy. Take the—women out of industry, anyway.—My dear friends, if you would just—No, no, don’t you slip out of it. ’Ave you seen God? ’Ave you touched ’im? ’Ave you shook ’ands with ’im?—Oh, don’t get on the argue, for Christ’s sake don’t get on the argue!’ etc. etc. I listened for twenty minutes, anxious to learn something about Mormonism, but the meeting never got beyond shouts. It is the general fate of street meetings.
In Middlesex Street, among the crowds at the market, a draggled, down-at-heel woman was hauling a brat of five by the arm. She brandished a tin trumpet in its face. The brat was squalling.
‘Enjoy yourself!’ yelled the mother. ‘What yer think I brought yer out ’ere for an’ bought y’ a trumpet an’ all? D’ya want to go across my knee? You little bastard, you shall enjoy yerself!’
Some drops of spittle fell from the trumpet. The mother and the child disappeared, both bawling. It was all very queer after Paris.
The last night that I was in the Pennyfields lodging-house there was a quarrel between two of the lodgers, a vile scene. One of the old-age pensioners, a man of about seventy, naked to the waist (he had been laundering), was violently abusing a short, thickset stevedore, who stood with his back to the fire. I could see the old man’s face in the light of the fire, and he was almost crying with grief and rage. Evidently something very serious had happened.
The old-age pensioner: ‘You—!’
The stevedore: ‘Shut yer mouth, you ole—, afore I set about yer!’
The old-age pensioner: ‘Jest you try it on, you—! I’m thirty year older’n you, but it wouldn’t take much to make me give you one as’d knock you into a bucketful of piss!’
The stevedore: ‘Ah, an’ then p’raps I wouldn’t smash you up after, you ole—!’
Thus for five minutes. The lodgers sat round, unhappy, trying to disregard the quarrel. The stevedore looked, sullen, but the old man was growing more and more furious. He kept making little rushes at the other, sticking out his face and screaming from a few inches distant like a cat on a wall, and spitting. He was trying to nerve himself to strike a blow, and not quite succeeding. Finally he burst out:
‘A—, that’s what you are, a——! Take that in your dirty gob and suck it, you—! By—, I’ll smash you afore I’ve done with you. A—, that’s what you are, a son of a—whore. Lick that, you—! That’s what I think of you, you—, you—, you—you BLACK BASTARD!’
Whereat he suddenly collapsed on a bench, took his face in his hands, and began crying. The other man seeing that public feeling was against him, went out.
Afterwards I heard Steve explaining the cause of the quarrel. It appeared that it was all about a shilling’s worth of food. In some way the old man had lost his store of bread and margarine, and so would have nothing to eat for the next three days, except what the others gave him in charity. The stevedore, who was in work and well fed, had taunted him; hence the quarrel.
When my money was down to one and fourpence I went for a night to a lodging-house in Bow, where the charge was only eightpence. One went down an area and through an alley-way into a deep, stifling cellar, ten feet square. Ten men, navvies mostly, were sitting in the fierce glare of the fire. It was midnight, but the deputy’s son, a pale, sticky child of five, was there playing on the navvies’ knees. An old Irishman was whistling to a blind bullfinch in a tiny cage. There were other songbirds there—tiny, faded things, that had lived all their lives underground. The lodgers habitually made water in the fire, to save going across a yard to the lavatory. As I sat at the table I felt something stir near my feet, and, looking down, saw a wave of black things moving slowly across the floor; they were black-beetles.
There were six beds in the dormitory, and the sheets, marked in huge letters ‘Stolen from No.—Road’, smelt loathsome. In the next bed to me lay a very old man, a pavement artist, with some extraordinary curvature of the spine that made him stick right out of bed, with his back a foot or two from my face. It was bare, and marked with curious swirls of dirt, like a marble table-top. During the night a man came in drunk and was sick on the floor, close to my bed. There were bugs too—not so bad as in Paris, but enough to keep one awake. It was a filthy place. Yet the deputy and his wife were friendly people, and ready to make one a cup of tea at any hour of the day or night.
| It is a curious but well-known fact that bugs are much commoner in south than north London. For some reason they have not yet crossed the river in any great numbers. [back]|