Sunday, March 4, 2012

The People of the Abyss, by Jack London

Sometimes the best remedy for gloomy exhaustion is a dive into a novel about people who are mired in even worse straits. "You're reading what?!" asked my English colleague. "Is that really a good idea?" Well, The People of the Abyss, Jack London's account of life in squalid East London at the dawn of the 20th century, is not going to jolly anyone out of  funk. It is highly likely, however, to make most people's 21st century problems seem relatively benign.
I'd always associated Jack London with books about sled dogs -- White Fang and Call of the Wild. I avoided these books when I was a child, since my father was a veterinarian and I needed no reminding that humans treat animals badly. Now, in my mid-life, Jack London reminds me of how callously humans handle each other. In 1901, Jack went to England and decided to investigate life in the slums of East London. For the people living there, life was no less (and quite possibly more) harsh than for creatures struggling to survive in the brutal arctic zone. Mercy was all but nonexistent and social safety nets unheard of. The Abyss of this book seems no less brutal than the slums and poorhouses of Dickens' day. In the Malaysia of 2012, with England among the "civilised" nations scolding Asia about human rights violations, I have to sit back and marvel at Jack London's exposé .

When the author first arrived, he asked "proper" Londoners to give him some pointers about East London. They responded with incredulity, as if he were asking about a neighbourhood in central Africa. It is Jack's first clue that London consists of two very separate worlds.
“You don’t want to live down there!” everybody said, with disapprobation writ large upon their faces.  “Why, it is said there are places where a man’s life isn’t worth tu’pence.” “The very places I wish to see,” I broke in. “But you can’t, you know,” was the unfailing rejoinder. “Which is not what I came to see you about,” I answered brusquely, somewhat nettled by their incomprehension.  “I am a stranger here, and I want you to tell me what you know of the East End, in order that I may have something to start on.” “But we know nothing of the East End.  It is over there, somewhere.”  And they waved their hands vaguely.
The American consul's reply at least speaks to me of the can-do attitude of American men of that period. No bureaucracy, no neurosis. Just confidence and determination.
I took my way to the American consul-general.  And here, at last, I found a man with whom I could “do business.”  There was no hemming and hawing, no lifted brows, open incredulity, or blank amazement.  In one minute I explained myself and my project, which he accepted as a matter of course.  In the second minute he asked my age, height, and weight, and looked me over.  And in the third minute, as we shook hands at parting, he said: “All right, Jack.  I’ll remember you and keep track.”
Jack began by paying a grudging hansom cab driver to take him on a scenic tour of the East End. The view varied little.
We rolled along through miles of bricks and squalor, and from each cross street and alley flashed long vistas of bricks and misery. 
He rented a room for himself -- rather posh by East London standards -- but it still lacked certain amenities.
Not only did the houses I investigated have no bath-tubs, but I learned that there were no bath-tubs in all the thousands of houses I had seen. 
We speak of air pollution today as if it's a phenomenon of the automotive age. Pack an insanely high population density into a small area with oil and wood fires for heat, cooking and light, and the result was most unhealthy. Plants could not survive in East London then.
Leaving out the disease germs that fill the air of the East End, consider but the one item of smoke.  Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, curator of Kew Gardens, has been studying smoke deposits on vegetation, and, according to his calculations, no less than six tons of solid matter, consisting of soot and tarry hydrocarbons, are deposited every week on every quarter of a square mile in and about London. 
Jack had to compete with hordes of impoverished men to experience one night in a London poorhouse. These facilities had limited space, and gaining entry for a night was a mixed blessing. The accommodations were foul and had to be paid for by hard labour all the following day. At the end of that, the men were tossed back out into the streets to make room for the next batch. Those with no shelter were doomed to walk the streets all night as laws prohibited their sleeping in the open. His descriptions of the utter exhaustion were devastating, but a night in the workhouse offered small solace.

Jack was "quite certain that the twenty-two of us washed in the same water." The bedding was hardly cleaner:  "... the back of one poor wretch was a mass of blood from attacks of vermin and retaliatory scratching."  On the following day, he and other inmates worked off their lodging debt in the local infirmary. They were given one last meal before their discharge.
At eight o’clock we went down into a cellar under the infirmary, where tea was brought to us, and the hospital scraps.  These were heaped high on a huge platter in an indescribable mess—pieces of bread, chunks of grease and fat pork, the burnt skin from the outside of roasted joints, bones, in short, all the leavings from the fingers and mouths of the sick ones suffering from all manner of diseases.  Into this mess the men plunged their hands, digging, pawing, turning over, examining, rejecting, and scrambling for. 
Shortly after his night in the workhouse, Jack surfaced to witness the coronation of King Edward VII. His recent experiences and his American socialist sensibilities dampened his appreciation for the pomp and grandeur.
Vivat Rex Eduardus!  They crowned a king this day, and there has been great rejoicing and elaborate tomfoolery, and I am perplexed and saddened.  I never saw anything to compare with the pageant, except Yankee circuses and Alhambra ballets; nor did I ever see anything so hopeless and so tragic.
 He made several observations about the deadening effects of living in cramped squalor, starved of food, heat and education. Such impoverished people managed only "conversation as meditative and vacant as the chewing of a heifer’s cud."

He also noted that England was at the peak of its colonial glory, and her best young men had gone off to South Africa, India, and beyond. Those who remained behind struggled to survive in what he perceived to be an abandoned and dying mother ship.
The erstwhile men of England are now the men of Australia, of Africa, of America.  England has sent forth “the best she breeds” for so long, and has destroyed those that remained so fiercely, that little remains for her to do but to sit down through the long nights and gaze at royalty on the wall.The strength of the English-speaking race to-day is not in the tight little island, but in the New World overseas.
As if his anecdotal observations weren't potent enough, he resorts to numbers. I found these statistics staggering.
The population of London is one-seventh of the total population of the United Kingdom, and in London, year in and year out, one adult in every four dies on public charity, either in the workhouse, the hospital, or the asylum.  When the fact that the well-to-do do not end thus is taken into consideration, it becomes manifest that it is the fate of at least one in every three adult workers to die on public charity...
There are 300,000 people in London, divided into families, that live in one-room tenements.  Far, far more live in two and three rooms and are as badly crowded, regardless of sex, as those that live in one room.  The law demands 400 cubic feet of space for each person.  In army barracks each soldier is allowed 600 cubic feet.  Professor Huxley, at one time himself a medical officer in East London, always held that each person should have 800 cubic feet of space, and that it should be well ventilated with pure air.  Yet in London there are 900,000 people living in less than the 400 cubic feet prescribed by the law...
One in every four in London dies on public charity, while 939 out of every 1000 in the United Kingdom die in poverty; 8,000,000 simply struggle on the ragged edge of starvation, and 20,000,000 more are not comfortable in the simple and clean sense of the word.,, 
The average age at death among the people of the West End is fifty-five years; the average age at death among the people of the East End is thirty years. 
Finally, Jack takes the opportunity to ridicule the misguided attempts by some well-meaning and well-off Londoners to bring some light to the East End. It's hard to appreciate fine art on an empty stomach. Until England can offer its poor (many of whom fell into ruin simply because they fell ill or were injured) a way to survive a temporary misfortune without going straight to the poorhouse, he says, there is no point in offering token gestures. They are simply ridiculous. You might better offer beer.
I have gone through an exhibition of Japanese art, got up for the poor of Whitechapel with the idea of elevating them, of begetting in them yearnings for the Beautiful and True and Good.
Did Destiny to-day bind me down to the life of an East End slave for the rest of my years, and did Destiny grant me but one wish, I should ask that I might forget all about the Beautiful and True and Good; that I might forget all I had learned from the open books, and forget the people I had known, the things I had heard, and the lands I had seen.  And if Destiny didn’t grant it, I am pretty confident that I should get drunk and forget it as often as possible.

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