My mother’s cry rang in my ears from infancy. ‘No child of mine is going into a shoe factory.’ Similar heroics were heard throughout the land then, as parents declared their children ‘too good’ for the mill, the pit or the factory; such brave resolutions coincided with the closure of those sites of labour. My mother was no visionary, but she sensed that the employment from which she was preserving me was doomed. She wanted to take credit for the approaching extinction of the staple industry of our town, as though she had personally closed down the factories, solely to keep her children out of them.
A generation earlier, the main influence on my life would have been those same factories, which used to stand, squat, of blood-red brick, on almost every street corner: dusty windows, the glass of which was frosted, not to prevent passers-by from looking in, but to stop the attention of distracted employees from wandering outwards. Inside, heavy black machinery was served by the work of clickers, who cut the soles and uppers, skivers, makers, finishers, eyeletters; while fragments of discarded leather accumulated on the floor, in which insects and mice made their nests.
Life was marked by the regimented tramp of boots on the pavement in the early morning and again in the green winter dusk, the tang of leather that left its taste in the air, and even entered into food and drink. The work I would never do was tantalizing; and although I had no inclination to do it, it held a sombre seductive power, since in it I could clearly perceive the individual I was spared from becoming. If my mother conceived such a hatred for boot-factories, this was doubtless because her ten surviving siblings had been claimed by them; although this did not prevent them, for the most part, from becoming decent women and men, people who led lives of exemplary honesty and frugality.
My own early work consisted largely in recording the last gasp of their recollections of lives of labour. For years I haunted the slum houses where they had lived, watched as unfit buildings were razed; I re-animated the plain interiors, sketchy amenities and absent comforts with the obdurate, stingy and punishingly self-righteous boot and shoe workers. Surly, parochial and suspicious, they distrusted all orthodoxies. Three times they returned Charles Bradlaugh to parliament after he was expelled for refusing to swear the oath of allegiance on the New Testament; not because they were atheists, but because they thought his representation of them had nothing to do with his religious beliefs or lack of them.
The town of Northampton was a monument to their plain, conserving spirit. Some houses remained almost unaltered from the time of their construction, with little concession to ease or homeliness. Wooden chairs stood around the scrubbed table, a home-made rag-rug on the lino in front of the hearth, a chenille door-hanging danced in the draughts. A single brass faucet, discoloured by verdigris, sent a splashy cone of water into a shallow plaster sink. Coconut matting covered the red flags of the kitchen floor. In the sitting-room, a hard whipcord sofa, greasy from the pressure of arthritic hands; coal-smoke puthered into the room whenever the wind was in the wrong direction. The mantelpiece had a faintly ceremonial function: a clock, a wedding photograph, some brass candlesticks – emblems of a sacred domesticity. The bedrooms, too: austere penitential places, where the inside windowpane blossomed with frost in winter, and the ear of an enamel chamber-pot protruded from beneath beds high and hard, punitive altars for the sacrifice of human sexuality.
My mother’s brother, an active trade unionist, worked, not simply to improve conditions for the boot and shoe workers, but also to raise them up morally, so that they might lift their eyes above the factory bench, the bookmaker and the shadow of Theda Bara at the Temperance Hall, long converted from a palace of sobriety to a cinema. He performed a function that later devolved upon social workers – interceding with officials on behalf of the inarticulate, confronting landlords and moneylenders, getting compensation for the widow of a man crushed by a factory hoist that failed.
He sat with the dying and comforted those who had no belief in an afterlife with the assurance that their work in this one had not been in vain. He wrote letters for the barely literate, sad missives of consolation to a bereaved sister in Australia, letters of joy and love, but more usually, of commiseration, to separated kinsfolk. His letters made them cry. He was wise and humane, and when he attended classes of the Workers’ Educational association, he went to learn not about the contradictions of capitalism, in which he needed no instruction, but about flower-imagery in Shakespeare or the glory of Etruscan Art. He died when I was eighteen, before I had had time to appreciate the austere grace of his life. I later realized that he held, within his skinny, careworn person, my own narrowly avoided identity as worker by hand – a role omnipresent in our town, but immensely distant from my own protected experience.
For I too would have been a working-class intellectual, a species now believed – falsely – to be extinct. I would have attended adult educational classes, and if I debated Marxism, with the pragmatism, dissent and xenophobia of the shoe-workers of Northampton, probably would have have repudiated it as continental rubbish, about as durable as the gimcrack shoes produced in cloudy regions known as ‘abroad’.
I would have been seen by the drinking companions I shunned as one set apart; but an honourable apartness, since I would have been respected for a learning employed as a useful neighbourhood resource. My wife – for such was the pressure on those who preferred their own sex that it took a brave man or woman to resist – would have complained bitterly. She would, no doubt, ascribe the low level of my sexual interest in her to the fact that my head was always in a book, as though scholarly activity drained individuals of their sexuality. She would complain to neighbours that the doors of our house stood open to all the riff-raff of the town and the cold winter draughts, but that while I cared for the wife beaten by her husband in his addiction to milk from the brown cow, I was indifferent to the welfare of my own wife and children.
I would have blinked reproachfully at the world through pebble glasses, my jacket with its leather elbow-patches and scarred with ash that fell from the cigarette scorching my lips as I sifted through papers in the front room. My jumper would be splashed with food, my fly-buttons sometimes negligently left unfastened. I would have been tolerated as a harmless eccentric, as I sat in the parlour, the glass cupboard of china and crockery dim with dust, the brown and green carpet worn threadbare by the boots of fellow-workers; men and women who had come to see me with their tale of unfair dismissal, visits to the sanatorium to see their boy destined to die of TB, the fear of the workhouse, the woman jailed because she could not afford to pay the fine for the theft of a lipstick from Woolworth’s…
I would also have had another, secret life, perhaps; standing at the white ceramic stalls, with their persistent drip of water, of the public lavatory in Cow Meadow after the pubs closed, looking for fleeting sexual contact; at the same time, terrified of police agents provocateurs, of blackmail, of meeting someone from the factory – although that would at least have ensured mutual silence on what were then regarded as depraved tastes. I might have been arrested for indecency: under the watch of the police for one kind of anti-social activity, I might have been caught for a quite different offence against society…
Or perhaps not: I might well have been able to drown my deeper needs in the suffering of others, of which there would be no dearth – short-time working, the activities of the shit-house cop, who timed people’s visits to relieve themselves, and anything over three minutes reported to the supervisory staff; the demands of sickness on an income, more than eighty per cent of which went on food, fuel and rent; the flit to avoid arrears, moving with a handcart in the middle of the night. Then there would have been trade union meetings, the Labour Party, and lectures from the University extra-mural department; with never enough hours in the day to answer all the calls upon my time. As well as this, there was work – the snatched cup of tea and toast, kicking up yellow sparks on the pavement from the ‘blakeys’ or studs in the heel of the boots, then clocking in for nine hours in the bare clicking room, the only ornament a square clock with spindly Roman numerals.
In the mid-nineteenth century I would have been a ranting cobbler-preacher, attracting a small crowd of devout believers to some extreme dissenting sect in a cold red-brick chapel in a slum area abandoned even by the Primitive Methodists. I would have worked at home, collecting the uppers from shop, and working at a bench in the kitchen of rented rooms. I would despise the work I was doing – bespoke dancing pumps for the daughters of a local manufacturer to waltz their way through the night in the new crystal conservatory their father had constructed as an annexe to his substantial villa on the edge of town. Unlike my fellow workers – who usually earned their week’s wage by working ceaselessly for three days and nights and then going on the booze for the rest of the week – my weekly labour finished, I would open my Bible or my copy of Bunyan, read by a farthing rushlight and lose myself in visions of the better world that was, and was not, this one.
My wife would disturb me in the early hours, wondering why I had not come to bed, and express her bitterness about the vagrancy of my mind, even though I never strayed physically far from the draughty tenement we occupied in Alliston gardens – one of the most shameful addresses in town, a sombre four-storey of rented rooms that still stood in the centre of Northampton until the 1960s. She would have reproached me for my lack of ambition, and worse, for failing to provide a half-decent life for my family. Goaded, I would, for a time at least, have abandoned my books and dedicated myself to work, so that we could afford one of the little houses being built on the eastern limit of town, called Upper Thrift Street. While I railed against the curse of riches and her perverse desire to return to the fleshpots of Egypt, she would tartly point out that she had seen nothing but the wilderness and had never known what it meant to eat bread to the full.
I would move the family into the new house, with its adjacent workshop; and in our new prosperity, I would have taken on an apprentice; a young man I had ‘rescued’ from the ‘burrows’, those courts and lanes of slum housing behind the town centre. Ostensibly to compensate for the absence of a son, the interest I took in him would have been far from fatherly, although it is unlikely that I would ever have become conscious of the nature of my attraction to him. He would have moved into the house as a lodger. I would have vested my hopes and dreams in him, and he, a not particularly skilled or conscientious boy, would have infuriated and enchanted me; I would indulge his idleness and lack of ambition, tolerate anything; until the day when I discovered, to the shame and dishonour of the family, my daughter was pregnant. Embittered and angry – and perhaps unconsciously jealous – I would have dismissed him from the house and from our lives. But that would not be the last of him. As soon as the child was born, I heard his voice in its crying and laughter; and this would accompany me to my grave. Through all this, I would have remained unaware of the ambiguity of my sexuality, buried, as it was, beneath radical proprieties of a world deaf to my thin and useless fulminations.
Although it is enjoyable to spin stories, my own non-existent labouring past fills me with its ghostly afterlife. How strange, to have spent much of my life – and livelihood – preoccupied with work I never did. I performed a kind of shadow-work, chronicling the decay, and subsequent absence, of a form of labour passing away. What, I wonder now, have I achieved, as I survey a lengthening shelf of largely unread publications, newspaper cuttings eaten by sunlight and time, forgotten reviews on writings about changes that are over, if not entirely done with?
From 1963 I wrote regularly for New Society, a weekly that flourished for the space of one generation. I have thought a great deal about the significance of this short-lived publication and my place in it. For its existence straddled the period of what Karl Polanyi might have called the ‘second great transformation’ – the dissolution of the working class, and the re-making of the labour of Britain following the requirements of a single global economy. This was an era no less epochal than the making of the labouring classes at the time of the Industrial Revolution; and although this re-shaping of human vocations was accompanied by a great increase in prosperity, it was also attended by psychic and social disturbances akin to those of the first industrial era, when a working class was violently created out of a fading, impoverished peasantry.
Mills and factories closed, industrial buildings were demolished in a cloud of powdered red brick, and machinery lay exposed to the sky, the metal skeleton of industry. The function of people, manifest in gaunt factories and warehouses of the sooty towns and cities, became more elusive, and the dismantling of the reason for their existence was certainly not universally regarded as a liberation. Inner city riots and industrial action against the erasure of industry caused disquiet and vexation. Would the transition be accomplished without excessive social dislocation? Would it be accepted by the British, whose temper was, at the same time, equable and tolerant, but also refractory and given to outbursts of violent excitability? How acceptable was the rise in crime, addictions, psychiatric and emotional disorders, and were these a reasonable price for the economic upheaval in train?
It seems to me that we who reported from the heart of a mutating working class, were also undertaking a kind of low-level social snooping on behalf of the superintendents of these changes. Were we not signalling to those who governed us what they might expect from people suffering these radical discontinuities, forewarning them of places from which disaffection or unrest might come? Certainly, much of what I wrote focussed on the sensibility of people passing through this coercive social churning – the emptying of the industrial suburbs, the construction of new towns, loss of faith in the labour movement, the altered meaning of poverty, the relaxation of industrial discipline, and of course, the recreation in Asia and elsewhere of the landscapes of industrialism which were crashing into extinction at home.
I don’t want to exaggerate. Perhaps this is simply another expression of the distrust and churlishness I had inherited, my unchosen kinship with doubting shoemakers. I was certainly never prominent enough to have been taken very seriously, and what I wrote was derided by an omniscient Left with which I had imagined myself in sympathy.
I traced the direction of gay liberation, which proved to be similar to that of the emancipation of the working class: the consumer society had ample space to accommodate those earlier regarded as moral outlaws, just as a class which once appeared doomed to eternal antagonism to capitalism was eventually won over by the sweets proffered by its estranged progenitor.
How different it all looks now! The transition was successfully negotiated. Society was not torn asunder. Continuity was assured, and the advantages of privilege remained intact. Poverty was replaced by a fretful inequality, infinitely more manageable than the sullen collectivism of a mass of poor people. I have the uncomfortable feeling that I was not merely present at the unmaking of the working class, but an active participant in its demolition; since our rulers (whatever their politics) were, no doubt, confirmed in the wisdom of their ways by the news they received from unwitting tellers of tales, as the profound re-structuring took its course, not only in the economy and society, but equally in the psyche and mentality of the people.
The spectral work I performed, obsessed as it was with demolition and absence, was part of a more general troubled preoccupation with what happened to the people of Britain. It was not the loss of empire which inflicted the most enduring wound, but the swift undoing of the sense of purpose inscribed in the landscapes of the industrial towns and cities – factories now transformed into chic apartments, hotels, shopping malls or units for post-industrial activities, such as the manufacture of burglar alarms, the dispatch of sales catalogues, the storing of ink-cartridges or ready-made meals for the elderly at home. Perhaps, after all, my shadow-labour in the graveyard of industrial manufacture has been less marginal than I have sometimes imagined.
Photograph by the Boston Public Library