The Freedom Of The Street
by Jack Common
You all know and have heard of a figure most popular in our newspapers, the Man in the Street. His views you would suppose to be well worth taking into account so frequently are they quoted; and if we were really in good heart about things we might take pleasure in a nation which could thus honour its own anonymity and give its commonest wisdom a place in the daily counsels of the press. However, in these days you suspect everything. Like me, I bet you have often wondered whether this Man in the Street was really of the Street. His opinions so often indicate that he is really the Man behind the Lawn-mower, or the Man in the Wicker-work Lounge, or even the Person in plus-fours. He is suburban and often peevish, but you do not catch him uttering the true plebian growl. Now that’s a pity: were he genuine, he would be a most excellent oracle for us to have. As a national mentality we are sadly villa-built and maisonetted; we could do with a proper gutter-flow sometimes.
Mind you, there are men in the street and of it. In fact you can usually deduce your fellow-Briton’s class status from the way he regards the street. To some it is merely a. communication between one spot or another, a channel or runway to guide your feet or your wheels when you are going places. To others it's where you live. The average working-class house is a small and inconvenient place. Nobody wants to put up with the noise of children in it more than they have to - out they go, then, into the street. Similarly, a man can’t do any casual entertaining there, not so as to suit him. If his pals call, they all go out together - down the street, that is, to the boozer. Even the women find it a pleasanter change if they want company to go and stand on the doorstep. Add these up and you get a most characteristic working-class scene: crowds of kids flying here and there across the road; boys and youths by the shop windows and the corner-ends; men strolling the pavements or sitting shirt-sleeved by the doors; and the women in their aprons taking a breather in a bit of gossip with "next-door." These people live in the street.
But don’t think it’s all a bleedin’ shame, the way we’ve got to be thinking about nearly every working-class circumstance. Why, there’s such a good communal stir and warmth out on the pavements that it would be a queer kiddy that would sooner sit indoors than mix in it - even if indoors was a palace! From his earliest days he is committed to the communality outside, making his first appearance in a pram, very likely second-hand, or borrowed from Auntie Emmie, who has knocked off kid-making since she had indigestion so bad, pushed by a little girl from three doors higher up. There he goes a-sailing, the mother at first watching from the step, and the little girl being extra careful so as to show she’s worthy of the charge. Nobody knows what a baby is taking in, lying there with the sky stroking over his undefended sight, or sitting up and nodding as he tries to focus a fledgling gaze upon the multitude of objects that make noises. There are so often a lot of dirty little hands clutching the pram-side and bright faces peering in; rough boys come tearing by, yelling, sometimes banging into it and the pram rocks - goo, doesn’t he like the rumpus! That’s his Introduction. No wonder that the moment he can toddle by himself he makes for the street-door like a duck to the pond. Who wants a mother in a crowd like this? When he tumbles, one of the bigger girls will pick him up and wipe away the tears and snots; and the boys will generally turn from their games to administer rough justice to anyone who steals his sweets or toys. He gets to know where he stands with everybody easily and naturally. There’s none of that abrupt transition from home to school which in another class leaves the soft fibres of affection torn and bleeding as the little marvel in his mother’s eye becomes in a twinkling the weakest nonentity of a crowd. No, our toddler is amphibious from the start. There’s no shock to him in learning to step from the warm home atmosphere into the brisker world outside. So far he’s all right; it’s later on he’ll get knocks that the other laddie will be spared.
Now his street very likely is made up like this. (I speak of an actual one, rather than take an average of many, for averages have only a very meagre truthfulness.) There’ll be a continuous row on one side of upstairs and downstairs flats, one up, one down, each with its own front-door. So you get two front doors together led up to by a stretch of cement, then a garden belonging to the downstairs flat. The garden is about six foot deep and is enclosed in a low wall and iron railings, the railings spiked, of course, so that the kids will tear their clothes on them. Next, another couple of doors, another garden, and so on to the end of the street. Here stands the pub, huge in relation to any other edifice in sight, for its opposite number at the further end is only a little corner grocery run by a snuffy old man who gives tick, and shoves an extra ha’penny on everything. Each of these houses has a back-yard opening on the back lane and looking over to the backs of the next street. The back lane is the artery of trade. There is a regular procession of hawkers and delivery carts up and down it. Also, of course, mothers would prefer their children to play there, so they won’t dirty the front doorstep with their comings and goings.
Facing the row is the wide front street, and the corner-ends of several cross-streets which lead at right-angles from it. On these cornerends are first, a fruiterer’s, next, a shop that sells bread and confectionery; a barber’s a newsagent and confectioner; a shop that is empty every few months, at which practically everything has been tried sometime or other, but nothing will go because it is unlucky; next a hand-laundry; and finally, opposite the pub, a miserable little drapery. There now, there’s variety for you. A kiddy in that street comes to know these corner-ends as intimately as he knows the furniture in his own home. Each of them in turn has been his playground. In the cold winter nights he has huddled up against the panes of the best-lighted shop because it seemed warmer there, and played guessing-games with the names of the goods, or listened to the bigger lads telling stories of the mad woman in No.7; or he has run into the barber’s to shout “Have you any Wild Woodbines ? - well, tame them then.” With the first drying of the pavements in March he has chalked big rings on the cement at the corner for marbles; when he was little he was taken by the girls to look at the pretty pinafores in the drapery; as a biggish lad he stood uncomfortable in his new boots on a Sunday afternoon in summer seeing the little girls on their way to Sunday school stop to admire their white dresses reflected dimly in the glass of the grocer’s window where a faded blue blind hangs. As a dribbly-nosed eleven-year-old he stood in the sharp autumn evenings watching the doors of the bottle-and-jug department, their brass streaking as they swung to, waiting for Ma and hoping she’d send him for fish-and-chips for supper; and when he was about the school-leaving age and his voice was breaking, he’d lorded it over the younger lot leaning against the newsagent’s and puffing his fag. This street is his own place. For many a year if you wanted him you mentioned his nickname first, Tich or Conky or Poke, then the name of his corner-gang, the Judd Street, the Engine Terrace, or the Taylor’s Row. Here then are the hallowed quadrangles a working-man remembers when he thinks back on his youth.
But what about school then, says you. Ah now, with school begins his contact with the upstairs world which so far he has only known of as buffered off by his parents. And school, which is the council school, of course, is in origin quite alien to working-class life. It does not grow from that life; it is not “our” school, in the sense in which other schools can be so spoken of by the folk of other classes. The government forced them on us, and the real shaping of the working-class boy goes on after they are shut. That is a very important point to remember: that school in working-class life expresses nothing of that life; it is an institution clapped on from above. Thus all his life a man from this environment will regard many knowledges and skills with a suspicion which is incomprehensible to those who found that learning to be their natural birthright. He will fumble with a foreign language as though he had a secret shame in being found learning it at all; and in this, for there are always these harkings-back, he is of closer kin to the nineteenth century middle-class than to the nimble-tongued young bourgeois of to-day.
In the council schools you are taught a respect for white collars, punctuality (the best prizes usually go for this), a certain amount of docility, patriotism, religion, and the rest of the half-hearted precepts which school teachers are unwillingly pushed into spreading. Also, of course, the indispensable mechanical proficiencies necessary to every citizen nowadays: reading, writing and elementary arithmetic. Other subjects, history, geography science, are by way of meaningless decoration. Only an occasional starved enthusiast teaches them seriously at all. So school is a half-hearted affair, and the children know that it is half-hearted. There cannot be a disciplined way of life taught there as in the public schools, though nowadays you get many foolish attempts at imitations of it, for you are not preparing these boys for any lordly functions, and you have not the honesty plainly to shape them for the job they are going to get. Any ideals that appear there are so sham the kids see through them at once; it is the hints of power, the cautions which slip out every now and then which are really important.
Now that uneasy amalgam is not enough life which awaits them when they’ve done school. It is outside, in the street, where there lives a tradition which does naturally breed the qualities necessary for the factory. The corner-lads have it. It is dead against white collars, of course; boys of all classes will be when they can, but here the mere boyish dislike is given importance. A white collar is not only the teacher’s insignia, it is the bosses’. And their sons’. As he grows up the corner-lad becomes aware of the other districts so unlike his own, in which the quiet afternoon is undisturbed save by the short whirr of a lawn-mower, and the pavements have almost a bloom on them— a kind of faint bluishness—as the nursemaids sail their great perambulators hushed on soft rubber down them. In these live the bosses and their children. And here the corner-gang meet something that daunts them, and will continue to daunt them all their life. They meet laddies whom they might scorn for being too prettily turned out and too obedient to mother, but these boys have an incredible uppishness which is so fixed it must be based upon something. It is, it is something not properly belonging to the boyhood world at all, something which scraps of the men’s talk has hinted at. Before this the children of poor homes are abashed.
Similarly, as in all youth organisations, the corner-gang has a scorn for scholarship and an immense admiration for every form of physical prowess. But here it is a frank adolescent admiration unlinked to any social ideal. No middle-aged buffers come along to drape an instinctive feeling in the banners of beaming exhortation, to hitch their wagon to this star of young manhood. The corner-lad lives in a kind of outlawry. No one sees in his outbreaks of hooliganism a fine spirit of youth which may be turned to good account in the next war, class or imperial. The law looks on him with suspicion; it need not. The lads mean no harm and the factory will claim that turbulence for its own and have a harness round it soon enough.
The corner-gang has its own method of training its members in quick-wittedness and physical prowess. When they are out the best all-round lad will set the pace. Whatever he does, everybody has to do in turn, down to the smallest and weakest. You can see the possible penalties of this. For instance, the leading lad thinks maybe it would be a good idea to have some potatoes to roast over a fire on the waste ground. He sidles past the fruiterers’ where there’s a sack in the doorway and knocks one off. Easy. But there’s perhaps nine in the gang, and the shopkeeper has had some experience of this sort of thing before. If you’re last, you’ve got to be pretty nippy to escape a clouting. Thus is ability equalised and everybody kept up to scratch.
In a very similar fashion income is equalised. Suppose you strike it lucky. The back window of the grocery store-house happens to be broken; you notice it first and manage to fiddle a tin of corned beef out of it. Well, if you kept that to yourself you’d be disgraced for ever. You have to shell out. The same thing happens if, on some hard-up week-end, your old pot happens to come home cheery with beer or from a win on a horse, and flings you a copper or two. Now you may be thinking of buying chocolate or going to the pictures. But there’s the hungry gang to consider. They are all broke. So their decision is that you buy two-pennyworth of bruised fruit or stale cakes - then all get a whack.
This is the kind of social compulsion which you respect because you have accepted it voluntarily and because it agrees with that which you see operating upon your parents. You often hear your father grumbling about his union dues and sneering at the fat sods down in London who live well on them, all the same when he’s been working late or on the nightshift or something, and you are sent along to pay them, you feel at once in the atmosphere of the branch meeting a rightness which no real man would want to be outside. The branch is held in a room above the pub. The men stand around drinking and talking among themselves until somebody sees fit to harangue them; and there’s such a feeling of strong good-hearted maleness about, that you -a mere twelve-year-old maybe—are flattered to be admitted to it. You’ll remember that afterwards as something to go for. To be an equal in that company is a better thing, you know, than to excel in the odd manoeuvres of the council school. Yet the men themselves don’t think so. Or they appear not to. When one of them is moved to take an interest in his son’s welfare—a blue moon occurrence it is, too—he tells the lad to be like anyone else but his dad. He never goes to church himself, except for marrying and burying, but he’ll send his kids to the Sunday School religiously enough. Partly in order to get them out of the way so that he and the missus can have a Sunday afternoon doss, but also because, whenever he thinks of it, he realises the children should have some sort of instruction in the matter of morals and what-not. Similarly the biggest boozer in the street will insist on all his kids joining the Rechabites - a teetotal organisation. The children are willing enough to do this. Here’s one reason why: Rechabite membership costs you a penny a week, and your father is very willing to pay it; you pay your penny first week and get a card; the next five weeks you say you’ve forgotten your penny, and as the Rechabites know their crowd they don’t press you too hard; the result is, you’ve had five extra pennies for yourself. Of course, the danger is that your father will ask to see your card some time—say, if he has been rather heavily on the wallop one week-end, so the matter is in his mind. Well, at best you get away with a good lie; at worst, a good hiding. Then again the Rechabites give lantern-lectures, the Drunkard’s Doom, you know, and as the hero of this series is the very spit of your old man, you have the pleasure of seeing him get his just deserts. Then you tell your ma what you’ve seen and she is so delighted to have her husband discomforted by the resemblance even the child can see - that you’re in her good books for days. There’s the country or sea-side trip during the summer - you want to be in on that. Also they give little prizes. for rather silly things. For instance, once in a branch I belonged to there was a prize going for the lad who could name all the pubs on the main street nearby. We turned up all of us with lists of from twenty to thirty. All except Ginger Bowman: he said there were forty-one. We knew of his total before we went in and were reconciled to him having won. But the teachers, in whose sight Ginger was by no means a reliable little boy, thought he’d been extravagant. They put his list aside. He was outraged. He yelled that he knew there were that many, because he’d asked his old man who’d been in them all. We then joined in and told the teachers that if old Bowman said there were forty-one pubs there, he knew, no one better. The teachers had to give way, murmuring how dreadful it was. And the result was on the following Saturday night, here’s old Bowman boasting of his son winning a prize in the Rechabites~a thing himself was never likely to do.
Generally, parental advice lay along the lines of “get a pen instead of a pick”, or get out of the working-class if you can. But the trouble is, advice without example is never any good to children. We saw what our people really valued by the way they lived. It was not clean collars. Mind you, nearly every proletarian will tell you how much he’d like a clean-collar job. He enjoys clean collars. Working-class wives know what a row there is if the old man hasn’t a clean collar to put on when he’s going out on a Saturday night. Clean collars and well-brushed boots is the order of it. But it means no more than the city man’s interest in a navvy’s muscles. Whenever there’s a road up anywhere in the City you’re bound to see a crowd of clean faces absolutely enthralled before the spectacle of the pick-swinger. They have sacrificed something of their physical virtue to the desk and the fuller pay-packet; they are attracted and moved to a kind of sick envy by the man who hasn’t. There you have it. The fellow with the muscles would like a clean collar; the clean collar man fancies himself muscled up— it’s natural. Nevertheless, when you get down to hard fact, the city man’s wife is not much afraid that her husband will throw up his business and take to swinging the pick; nor does the working-class woman ever count on her brawny No. 1 suddenly gracing a desk.
The same thing applies with the other virtues from above. Thrift, for instance. Practically all the older folks at any rate will assent to it. They think, see, that if they’d saved while they were young, they’d be doing fine now. Also, of course, most of the women have to be careful anyway, and all the men are in favour of all the wives being careful all the time. Well, there’s plenty of canny care in the management of the homes - there has to be - but thrift, in the full bourgeois sense of the word, as a means of rising higher step by step, is generally a failure here. Something intervenes. The young fellow who’s put by a hundred quid, gets married, and bit by bit, or kid by kid, he gravitates to the floor again. His next chance comes when the family is up and beginning to earn for themselves. He puts by what he can. But then perhaps there’s a wave of unemployment. As an elder man, he goes out first. Even so, he can make do for a bit without seriously depleting the pile. But then, perhaps, his eldest son gets the shove. And that lad has a couple of kids depending on him; or else, he’s just put a girl in the family way and must get married. So it goes. One way or the other, there are few working-men who ever do more than ease their last years, however thrifty they’ve been.
The majority, luckily, aren’t excessively troubled by this virtue. When they are making good money, it really is “good” money, that is, money which instantly crystalises into pianos and football teams and motor-bikes and new boots all round the family. It rarely becomes investments, which after all, are but nooses of debt round other folks’ necks. The rest of the time money in the hands of the proletarian is simply the few bobs left over at the week-end after the wife’s had her lot. It might be five bob; it might be fifteen. Even if it’s the bare dollar, it’s enough for a gesture; it’s something to fling in the face of the fates on a Saturday night. Of course, you know that bit of cash is really needed for a hundred other things; it’s a terrible sin against the gods of thrift and security to fling it away. Well, yes, but then you need a bit of that courage in order to live a proletarian life at all. And those who have the physical good of a week’s hard, honest work inside them naturally want to give and not to possess. They accept the symbol of giving nearest to hand; a round of drinks is the gift you can make without laying a claim on the fellows you give it to. Generosity’s perfect motion should be writ in water, strong water, for any firmer record is always liable to become debt.
In these people’s hands money does not breed. They’ll cheerfully deplore that if you ask them, for they think it is one of their weaknesses. Yet we, looking on, might be glad of it. Only a part of our nation are money-breeders, and when we think what evil that part has managed to do, we should congratulate ourselves that the whole lot are not given the same way. In theory, however, they are. In the ordinary economic picture presented to us, the proletariat is not a separate class of different traditions to the dominant one; it is merely a category of the least successful would-be bourgeoisie, men in whom the authentic economic flame burns though dimly. That is why they are not given a working-class education; and why, though it is to every shopkeeper’s benefit that they should spend, they are never congratulated for being spendthrifts except in the advertisements of hire purchase firms. Their school struggles faint-heartedly to turn out diminished little gentlemen. They pay very little heed to it. I know the headmaster of one rather superior council school who was once struck by the idea of having an Old Boys’ Reunion. The scheme was a complete flop. The old boys, who never until they received his communication ever thought of themselves as Old Boys, thought it would be damn silly to be going back to school at their age. The reason is they never thought of their school as of much importance to them anyway. No one from this area ever hates the council school with half the virulence some ex-public schoolboys show with regard to theirs. Simply it is that the council school is not so significant either one way or the other; it doesn’t get deep into anyone’s life. It does not lead naturally to a career and a seat with one’s equals.
Your contact with the lads of the corner does. When the times comes to leave school you are up against a dilemma if you have taken much notice of what they said there. For by council school precepts you ought to be looking for an office job, so that you can practise the virtues of cleanliness, politeness to teacher, patriotism and self-help. Also by economic theory this is the moment when the market-laws exercise their natural selection, the able are exalted and the less-able turned away. According to current fable, the single worthy lad out of thousands with the same ambition will now take his seat among the mighty; the brainy sensible little proletarian will at once sleek his hair with brilliantine and sit mum on an office stool until diligence and sobriety permit him to rise. The rest, turned away through not having tried hard enough or not having the moral stamina, become reconciled to a life of toil. So it looks from above, perhaps. But, believe me, it isn’t really so. Those who sit in Paradise watching the pearly gates will probably have a good idea how the next arrival managed to get in; they’ll never know what keeps so many outside. Actually many a thousand able lads, with the potentiality of rising in the world, choose not to. They choose to stay with the crowd they respect rather than join the pale-faces who slip off singly to a higher sphere. They simply can’t see themselves sitting clean and respectable at an Old Boys’ Reunion; their picture is of the older lads they have always looked up to, how these fortunates sit around in dirty overalls, proud of calloused hands, the tang of maleness on them from rubbing against a tough crowd in the local shipyard or factory. For the boy brought up in that sort of street, the choice is pretty well predetermined unless he is physically weak or his parents have an extra strong will to get on in the world.
Let us seize upon this positive. In defiance of all economic law, many and many people actually choose to work as proletarians, not because that’s the only work they’d ever be able to do but because it actually seems more attractive to them. It comes naturally after the corner-lad stage. In the factories, mines and shipyards, there is the same opportunity for physical hardihood, the same rough equality and unadorned respect for one’s essential manhood, the same sense of outlawry and alien oppression formerly represented by the teacher and the constable, now symbolised by the bosses and the managerial staff. If you were happy in the street, you’ll be at home in the works.
It has become the habit of left-wing propagandists to be for ever talking of the sufferings of the exploited workers, so much of a habit that listening to them you would think the factories were unmitigated hell. This, like the bread-and-butter complex which the same parties have also got, dates from the early days of socialism, and arises partly from a jealous admiration of the privileges of bourgeois life. There is a considerable deal of truth in it, of course: the fact of exploitation is real. It is so real that it comes staring out of the faces of men who deny it exists. Yet there is much more than the naked negative truth to it; and that more must also have its day.
Consider: what is it that has kept the farm-labourer peaceful under the most infamous exploitation for centuries? Why, that he gets a goodness out of his work, even if there's little in his wages. He has the certainty that the soil is worth serving. It would be easy to go slow and let the land or the beasts get sickly. That would be no more than the land-owners deserve, since they take no care of him or his if he fails for any reason to keep up his toil. But does he do that? No fear. He enjoys his skill; it is a satisfaction to him to work on the nature of the soil and make it yield as much as it will even if that yield comes never to his table, not in its fullness. And because he has this goodness of genuine work in him, he is easy with things, he does not keep a wary eye on his neighbour, he can be robbed and robbed again.
Something of the same is true of an urban worker, though perhaps not quite to the same degree. There is, you know, a curious humming peace about a factory in full running, a steady pulse of human strength beating against and with the machines. You can almost feel the warmth of the blood, the tensing and flexing of so many muscles, as though the air had made a gathering of so many motions and become a vehicle in which the urge of a united will smote and shaped into the obstinacy of metal. There is something deeply satisfying in the steady running of the belts, the endless hum and clang, the low colours. Now an office by comparison is all nerves, fidgeting white paper, and peaked white faces. The one makes you think of quarts of beer, the other of pound notes. They are poor explainers who see in this merely a crowd of unfortunates, too inefficient to get a properly paid job, and compelled to follow the economic trail into this treadmill. Actually you see here in full activity one of the foundation-abilities on which western civilisation rests: the ability of men to combine peacefully in work which benefits a remote community. Yet how pitifully it is overlaid and maltreated. There are, fortunately for us, a considerable host of men who are so little interested in their own economic potentialities that, penalise them how you may, they will still prefer to do real work, work which benefits others, rather than pursue the augmentation of their own private fortunes. It’s lucky for us ; it gets us where we are; and if that were enough we might rest content in the mere moral shame of it. But alas! or thank Christ! (take your pick) we can’t stay there. Even the work-mugs have known for a long time some sort of a move has to be made. What move? That they have to find out.
End of The Freedom Of The Street by Jack Common