Poverty, Poverty Knock!
There are some words we always use when we imagine, or write or talk about, the modern world. Words like 'industry', 'industrialist', and 'factory'. Words like 'middle class' and 'working class'. Words like 'railway', 'capitalism' and 'socialism'. All of these words were newly coined or used in their modern sense (in the english language) between the years 1789 and 1848.
All of these words were used by people in England to describe or give a name to things they saw were happening around them. What was happening in England in these sixty years? The Industrial Revolution. A new way of using natural resources. Historians say the Industrial Revolution transformed England for ever after.
They say this revolution has transformed, and continues to transform, the entire world. As it transforms the world, so we use the same words to imagine, write, and talk about what's happening around us. Words like 'nationality', 'engineer', 'scientist', and 'journalism'. Words like 'strike', 'proletariat' and (economic) 'crisis'. Words like 'statistics' and 'sociology', 'liberal' and 'conservative'. Words like 'pauperism'. It is the year 1814.
The war with Napoleon Bonaparte is over. Since the 1780s, the steam engine has been perfected, and textile manufacturers have begun to use them in factories; in this year, George Stevenson begins to work on a prototype of the steam locomotive engine. In England, the Industrial Revolution is in full swing.
Come to the city of Manchester in Lancashire, England. Walk about. You see hundreds of factories five or six storeys high. At the side of each factory is a great chimney that belches black smoke and indicates the presence of steam engines. The smoke from chimneys forms a great cloud seen for miles around the town.
The houses have become black on account of the smoke. You see many, many spinning mills. You enter a mill in which cotton is being spun. Inside, huge looms stand in rows like an army regiment. Mule jennies have been built to run the looms efficiently. An adult or two children can operate 600 spindles at a time. Suddenly, above the din of a thousand shuttles going clacketyclack, you hear a song:
Poverty, poverty knock! Me loom is a-saying all day. Poverty, poverty knock! Gaffer’s1 too skinny2 to pay. Poverty, Poverty knock! Keepin’ one eye on the clock. Ah know ah can guttle3 When ah hear me shuttle Go: Poverty, poverty knock!
1: boss. 2: skinflint, miserly. 3: eat.
Coketown and its Hands
Charles Dickens (1812-1870), a prolific novelist, worked as a child in a blacking factory. He has been called a ‘condition-of-England’ novelist; his stories focus on how English society was changing under the Industrial revolution. He is not only observant, but also manages to pack a satiric punch in his writing. Hard Times, bits of which are given below, was published in 1854.
Coketown was a triumph of fact. It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye.
It had vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam engine worked monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets and many small streets all like each other inhabited by people who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound, upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.
These attributes of Coketown were inseparable from the work by which it was sustained. Against them were to be set off, comforts of life which found their way all over the world, and elegancies of life which made people fine, people who could scarcely bear to hear the place mentioned. The rest of its features were voluntary, and they were these.
You saw nothing in Coketown but what was severely workful. All the public places in the town were painted alike, in severe black and white. Fact, fact, fact, everywhere. The school was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact. Everything was fact between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn’t state in figures, or show to be purchaseable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest.
In the hardest working part of Coketown where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in; at the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts shouldering and trampling, and pressing one another to death — in this part lived the multitude of Coketown, generically called “the Hands”. And among them lived Stephen Blackpool. He was 40 years of age, but looked older. He had had a hard life. It is said that every life has its roses and thorns; in Stephen’s case, somebody else had his roses, and he had the same somebody else’s thorns in addition to his own. He was a good powerloom worker, and a man of perfect integrity.
The lights in the great factories made them look like Fairy palaces. The Fairy palaces burst into illumination before morning in Coketown. A clattering of clogs upon the pavements; a rapid ringing of bells; and all the mad elephants, polished and oiled, were at their heavy exercise again. So many hundred Hands in this Mill; so many hundred horse Steam Power. Stephen bent over his loom, quiet, watchful, and steady. A special contrast, as every man was in the forest of looms where Stephen worked, to the crashing, smashing, tearing piece of mechanism at which he laboured. ?
Edited from Hard Times by Charles Dickens, Penguin
Moneylenders binding peasants in eternal debt? Didn’t this kind of thing disappear with nineteenth century Bengali literature? Or with Premchand’s Godan? Travelling in India’s poorest districts from 1993 to 1995, P Sainath found otherwise
Ramnad (Tamil Nadu): The tharagar (commission agent) dips his hands into one of two sacks laid before him by a small farmer and extracts a kilogram of chillies. He carelessly tosses this to one side — as sami vathal (God’s share). Ramaswamy the chilli farmer, who owns threequarters of an acre of land, watches. He can sell his chillies to only this tharagar.
Why? By advancing him Rs 2,000 before the season began, the agent bought up Ramaswamy’s entire crop before it was sown. The tharagar is more than a moneylender. He is often a landholder, a wholesaler linked to the transport business, and in some cases an exporter. The tharagar network is a tight one.
The farmers bring in thousands of kilos of chillies which can lie in the yard for days on end while the tharagars argue and set the price. The chillies dry in the sun. This makes them lighter, weigh much less. That’s to the tharagar’s advantage. Ramaswamy is offered Rs 10 a kg. The tharagar takes sami vathal.
He cuts payment by a further Rs 20, saying each of the gunny sacks (in which Ramaswamy has bought the chillies) weighs a kilo. Then Ramaswamy finds out that the bags, which weighed 20 kilos in his village, now weigh only 18 kilos. He knows he is being cheated, but is not clear how. Nor does the tharagar explain why he charges commission on 40 kg but pays only for 32.
Kalipur, Surguja (Madhya Pradesh): The land auction was being held in near total darkness. It was 9 pm, yet almost the whole village was there. But there was only one buyer for the land. The timing had been arranged to suit the buyer. The real buyer was Rajendra Pandey, a forest department employee.
The person acting as his front, posing as the buyer, was his brother-in-law. The adivasi woman losing her land was Suhaso, a Gond adivasi. This was Kalipur in Surguja, one of India’s poorest districts, with an adivasi majority. Suhaso had failed to repay a loan taken from the Bhumi Vikas bank. And the bank put up her 9.73 acres of land for sale. In the process, those behind the auction were violating virtually every law relating to such transactions in Madhya Pradesh.
To begin with, Suhaso had taken no loan. “Jaiswal saab (the local moneylender) asked my husband to put his thumbprint on a document, saying he would fetch rations for us from town,” says Suhaso. On the strength of that thumbprint, Jaiswal saab took a loan of Rs 7,700 in her husband’s name from a scheme meant only for adivasis. Using their names, he got a pumpset and had a well dug on his land. Land Suhaso’s
As you walk through
George Orwell (1903-1950) is the pseudonym of Eric Blair. At 30, Orwell lived for 18 months amongst tramps and slum dwellers in England and Paris: how did people live at the very bottom of the social ladder? The result of this was Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). In January, 1936 — as the world still suffered from a global market slump — the publisher Victor Gollancz commissioned Orwell to write about unemployment in the mining districts in North England. The result was The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). Orwell is most famous for the novels Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949).
As you walk through the industrial towns you lose yourself in labyrinths of little brick houses blackened by smoke, festering in planless chaos round miry alleys and little cindered yards where there are stinking dustbins and half-ruinous WCs.
Not a single one has hot water laid on. You might walk, I suppose, through literally hundreds of miles of streets inhabited by miners, every one of whom, when he is at work, gets black from head to foot every day, without passing a house in which one could have a bath. It would have been very simple to install a water system, but the builder saved perhaps ten pounds on each house by not doing so, and at the time these houses were built no one imagined that miners wanted baths.
In the industrial areas the mere difficulty of getting hold of a house is one of the worst aggravations of poverty. It means that people will put up with anything — any hole and corner slum, any misery of bugs and rotting floors and cracking walls, any extortion of skinflint landlords and blackmailing agents — simply to get a roof over their head. Some people hardly seem to realise that such things as decent houses exist and look on bugs and leaking roofs as acts of God; others rail bitterly against their landlords; but all cling desperately to their houses lest worse should befall. In the town of Wigan, for instance, there are over 2000 houses standing which have been condemned for years.
My notes bring back what I have seen, but they cannot in themselves give much idea of what conditions are like in those fearful northern slums. Words are such feeble things. What is the use of a brief phrase like ‘roof leaks’ or ‘four beds for eight people’? It is the kind of thing your eye slides over, registering nothing. And yet what a wealth of misery they hide! Take the question of overcrowding, for instance.
Quite often you have eight or even ten people living in a three-roomed house, sleeping in at most four beds. In one house, I remember, three grown-up girls shared the same bed and all went to work at different hours, each disturbing the other when she got up or came in. Then there is the misery of leaking roofs and oozing walls, which in winter make some rooms almost uninhabitable. Then there are the bugs. Once bugs get into a house they are in it till the crack of doom; there is no way of exterminating them.
In such places as these a woman is only a poor drudge muddling among an infinity of jobs. She may keep up her spirits, but she cannot keep up her standards of cleanliness and tidiness. There is always something to be done, and no conveniences and almost literally not room to turn round. No sooner have you washed one child’s face that another’s is dirty; before you have washed the crocks from one meal the next is due to be cooked.
The squalor and the confusion! A tub full of filthy water, a basin full of unwashed crocks there, more crocks piled in any odd corner, torn newspaper littered everywhere, and in the middle always the same dreadful covered with sticky oilcloth and crowded dreadful table covered with sticky oilcloth and crowded with cooking pots and irons and halfdarned stockings and pieces of stale bread and bits of cheese wrapped round with greasy newspaper!
There are scenes that stand out vividly in my memory. The almost bare living-room of a cottage in a little mining village, where the whole family was out of work and everyone seemed to be underfed; and the big family of grown-up sons and daughters sprawling aimlessly about, all strangely alike with red hair, splendid bones and pinched faces spoiled by malnutrition and idleness.
I first became aware of the unemployment problem in 1928. At that time I had just come back from Burma where unemployment was just a word. And I had gone to Burma when I was still a boy and the post-war boom was not quite over. When I first saw unemployed men at close quarters, the thing that horrified and amazed me was to find that many of them were ashamed of being unemployed.
I remember the shock of astonishment it gave me, when I first mingled with tramps and beggars, to find that a fair proportion of them were decent young miners and cottonworkers gazing at their destiny with the same sort of dumb amazement as an animal in a trap. They simply could not understand what was happening to them.
When a quarter of a million miners are unemployed, it is part of the order of things that Alf Smith, a miner living in the back streets of Newcastle, should be out of work. Alf Smith is merely one of the quarter million, a statistical unit. But no human being finds it easy to regard himself as a statistical unit. So long as Bert Jones across the street is still at work, Alf Smith is bound to feel himself dishonoured and a failure. Hence that frightful feeling of impotence and despair which is the worst evil of unemployment.
There is no doubt of the deadening, debilitating effect of unemployment upon everybody. Take a miner, for instance, who has worked in the pit since childhood and has been trained to be a miner and nothing else. How the devil is he to fill up the empty days? It is absurd to say that he ought to be looking for work. There is no work to look for, and everybody knows it.
Edited from The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell, Secker and Warburg, London, 1986.
Surround the City
In the village of Ilmorog, in Kenya, Africa, the rains have failed for the second year running. The village Elders blame the drought on shopkeeper Abdullah’s donkey. But others, like village schoolteacher Karega and Nyakinyua the old woman have other ideas. They hold a meeting. What should they do?
The meeting was well attended. Njuguna told the people what Mwathi wa Mugo had said: ‘We send this donkey away. If it was a goat we would beat it and then send it away and ask it to pass the plague to others. This animal is not a goat. But we are using it for the same illness:
I say we shall beat it and when it is about to die we shall send it away into the plains to carry this plague away.’ A few other elders spoke and agreed with the idea: a donkey was truly the stranger in their midst! ‘But perhaps the teachers of our children might have a modern cure for an old illness,’ another elder suggested. Karega trembled. In school debates he had talked and argued. But he had never before talked to a gathering of elders.
He could not now think of an appropriate riddle, proverb or story with which to drive home his points. So he made a plain speech: ‘A donkey has no influence on the weather. No animal or man can change the laws of nature. But people can use the laws of nature. The magic we should be getting is this: the one which will make this land so yield in times of rain that we can keep aside a few grains for when it shines.
We want the magic that will make our cows yield so much milk that we shall have enough to drink and exchange the rest for things we cannot grow here. That magic is in our hands. If we kill Abdullah’s donkey we shall all be cutting our other leg in
I come from Limuru where donkeys have proved to be motorcars that don’t need petrol. When the last grain in your stores is finished, will any of us be able to walk afar and fetch food and water on our backs? Let us rather look to ourselves to see what we can do to save us from the drought.’
He told them the idea of a delegation to their MP in the city. ‘We give him our votes so that he can carry our troubles. But if we do not show him that we have troubles so he can pass them to the government, can we blame him?’
They started talking and whispering among themselves. Yes, that was right…we should let those in authority know. Yes, yes, maybe if they knew of our plight they would not send men to collect taxes and others to demand money for organisations the village knew nothing about…
Njuguna stood up and opposed the idea of going to the city. ‘My ears have heard strange words. That we should send a whole community to beg. Have you heard of a whole people abandoning their land and their property to go and beg in strange highways? We shall send the young man to the city and he will tell the MP to come to us. Yes, it is the MP who should come to us.’
There was renewed argument. Nyakinyua stood up: ‘I think we should go. It is our turn to make things happen. There was a time when things happened the way we in Ilmorog wanted them to happen. We had power over the movement of our limbs. We made up our own words and sang them and we danced to them. But there came a time when this power was taken from us.
‘First the Wazungu1. They would send trains here from there. They ate our forests. What did they give us in return? Then they sent for our young men. They went on swallowing our youth. Ours is only to bear in order for the city to take. ‘In the war against Wazungu we gave our share of blood. A sacrifice.
Why? Because we wanted to be able to sing our song. But what happened? They have continued to entice our youth away. What do they send us in return? They send us messengers who demand money. They send others with strange objects and they tell us that they are measuring a big road. Where is the road? The MP also came once. Have we seen him since? Aca!
‘That is why Ilmorog must now go there and see thing that only takes but never gives back. We must surround the city and demand back our share. We must sing our tune and dance to it. Ilmorog must go as one voice.’
She sat down to a thought-charged silence. ?
1. The white man, in Kenya’s case British colonialists.
Edited from: Petals of Blood, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Heinemann, 1986, pp. 114-6
Ngugi wa Thiong’o was born in 1938 in Limuru, Kenya. Novelist, playwright and social critic, he wrote on life and times in Kenya since its independence. As he became sensitive to the effects of colonialism in Africa, he adopted his traditional name and started writing in the language of Kenya’s Kikuyu people. Petals of Blood (1977) is his fourth novel and the last one he wrote in english. An increasingly radical writer, he now lives in London exiled by the Kenyan government.