But it starts brilliantly with a description of a filthy tripe shop cum lodging house in which OAPs subsist in shared bedrooms an bread and butter imprinted with the filthy thumbprint of the landlord. Despite receiving a pension, without extra savings an OAP cannot survive on their own. Nor can they live with a son or daughter if that person is unemployed and on the dole because if they do so they will be counted as a lodger and the dole will be reduced to the extent where the whole family will starve. So they have to eke out their sunset years in undignified misery.
The book continues with wonderful descriptions and haunting images of poverty. He describes a slum girl, glimpsed momentarily from a train, whose face wears "the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen ... she knew well enough what was happening to her." He uses this image to refute the concept that the lower orders are dumb brutes and don't mind poverty and squalor.
He also admires the "superhuman" coal miners ("The miners' job would be as much beyond my power as it would be to perform on the flying trapeze") with "their noble bodies". But in very hot mines, where it is necessary to go about half-naked, most of the miners have what they call 'buttons down the back' - that is, a permanent scar on each vertebra" from not bending low enough when they are crouching through the tunnels. They are also tattooed: "Every miner has blue scars on his nose and forehead, and will carry them to his death. The coal dust of which the air underground is full enters every cut, and then the skin grows over it and forms a blue stain like tattooing, which in fact it is."
He draws the following lessons:
- "It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence."
- Educated bourgeois are no more gifted than anybody else but "have the cheek necessary to a commander."
- "The price of liberty is not so much eternal vigilance as eternal dirt."
This first part of the book was so well-observed that it was mesmerising, like rubber-necking at the site of a car crash. But he can also turn a phrase:
- Dismissing conspiracy theories: "What I have seen of our governing classes does not convince me that they have that much intelligence."
- "Sheffield ... could justly claim to be the ugliest town in the Old World."
- "the dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat."
- "A Yorkshire man in the South will always take care to let you know that he regards you as an inferior."
- Of self-made men: "Though he might be narrow-minded, sordid, ignorant, grasping and uncouth ... he knew how to make money."
- Of the way certain novelists depict women: "every married woman is an angel chained to a satyr."
Cut most of part two with its dreary politics and you will have a wonderfully written book, even more powerful (perhaps because it is journalism rather than fiction but probably because of the vivid description) that Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole. These books need to be remembered so that Britain never again exploits its people as it did then.
Well worth reading. May 2016; 204 pages