In which The Author finds government policy described in a Victorian scientific romance
‘Scientific romance’ was the lovely term used to describe the novels of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and their lesser-known contemporary Edward Bellamy, amongst others. I’ve been on a bit of a Wells binge recently, after re-reading Christopher Priest’s chilling short story ‘An Infinite Summer’ for the umpteenth time.
‘An Infinite Summer’, set in and around the town of Richmond in Surrey, took shape while he was writing The Space Machine. That ingenious 1976 novel is written in the style of a Victorian scientific romance, ties together the events of Wells’s The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, and even features Wells himself as a character.
As I’ve mentioned before, Mr Priest has an enviable knack of finding inspiration for a new story while he’s in the middle of writing one. While he was researching Victorian Richmond, he was inspired to write the short story. Wells also appears as a character in his last novel, The Adjacent. Mr Priest is currently Vice-President of the H. G. Wells Society, deservedly so in my opinion. His own work owes much to the presiding genius of Victorian SF, and he’s done a great deal to bring a contemporary approach to the rather stiff and moralistic storytelling of that era.
I’m ashamed to say that I, a lifelong science fiction fan, haven’t read nearly as many of Wells’s novels as I should have. He’s a rather controversial figure these days, with his old-fashioned views on race, the Jewish question, and eugenics being re-examined from a rather harsh 21st century perspective. Nevertheless, Wells was an ardent socialist, and was considered to be a fairly radical figure in his younger days. (He died in August 1946, a few weeks short of his eightieth birthday.)
I’ve still got a very old Pan paperback copy of The Time Machine, and I took The War of the Worlds out of Aberdare Library long before it was deaccessioned. I’ve never attempted The Invisible Man or The Island of Doctor Moreau, to name some of his most famous SF works, never mind his later, more pessimistic, predictions of the future. I think I’ve been fighting shy of his rather stiff and moralistic storytelling, to be honest.
Ages ago, I came across a copy of his novel Love and Mr Lewisham in Dillons. It wasn’t SF, though – it was one of his semi-autobiographical tales, about a lower middle-class chap and his pursuit of a rather radical bluestocking in Edwardian London. I quite enjoyed that, and when I came across a copy of Tony-Bungay in Barbara’s shop in Aberdare, I picked it up straight away. It sat on my shelf for a long time (as these things do!) before I decided to read it last week.
It’s not SF either, apart from a diversion about early flying machines, which seems to have been a bit of an obsession of his. It tells the story of a man who grows extremely rich by selling a useless patent medicine to gullible punters. It’s a very clever and funny satire on the class system, British business, politics, and the advertising industry.
I laughed out loud when I turned to the chapter headed ‘How I Became a London Student, and went Astray’. Been there, done that, still fit into the T-shirt! Wells’s vivid description of the many distractions available to the not-so-studious student still rings true, more than a century after the book was published.
After finishing Tono-Bungay I went back to my shelves and picked up When the Sleeper Wakes. I’d bought that from Barbara too, but hadn’t got round to reading it until this week.
We’re back in scientific romance mode, but with Wells’s social conscience in the foreground. It was first published in 1899, but appeared in a slightly revised form subsequently. The Everyman paperback from which the following quotations are taken used the 1898 text.
Wells’s leading character, Graham, is a radical thinker and pamphleteer in late Victorian England. (I think it’s probably safe to assume that ‘Graham’ is his surname, rather than his first name.) Plagued by chronic insomnia, Graham suddenly falls into a profound coma and sleeps for two hundred years.
When he regains consciousness, London has been transformed into a domed city of 33 million people, with moving walkways, wind-generated electricity, televisions, aircraft which can cross the Atlantic in a matter of minutes. Britain has only four major cities: London, Manchester, Portsmouth, and (weirdly) Shrewsbury. The countryside has been all but abandoned, but herds of livestock still provide food for the cities. The country is ruled by the all-powerful Council, and a series of committees and boards oversee every aspect of daily life.
Graham learns that his small savings and a couple of legacies, placed in the hands of a committee of trustees, have accumulated into vast wealth. It should be a Golden Age. Instead, the Council have used this money to finance their own lives of luxury and the lifestyles of their cronies, while everyone else lives in abject poverty. Hiding from a violent uprising during a power blackout, Graham bumps into an old man, who tells him the whole story:
‘Eh! – but you’re not up to things. Money attracts money – and twelve brains are better than one. They played it cleverly. They worked politics with money, and kept on adding to the money by working currency and tariffs. They grew – they grew. And for years the twelve trustees hid the growing of the Sleeper’s estate, under double names and company titles and all that. The Council spread by title deed, mortgage, share, every political party, every newspaper, they bought. If you listen to the old stories you will see the Council growing and growing. Billions and billions of lions at last – the Sleeper’s estate, and all growing out of a whim – out of this Warming’s will, and an accident to Isbister’s sons.’ (Wells, 1898, p. 91).
After Graham’s sudden awakening, the people revolt against the Council. He is rescued from the mob by the mysterious Ostrog, and hailed as the new Master. After all, he owns half the Earth.
It’s a theme which has been explored several times in SF. Woody Allen made a film called Sleeper, in which the lead character tries to come to terms with a radically different future. Frederik Pohl took Wells’s idea and turned it on its head in The Age of Pussyfoot. The idea of a modern man waking up in a radically different future society is one of the perennial flowers of the genre.
In the middle of Wells’s novel, though, I found yet another security leak from the future. No doubt it seemed like satire to Wells’s readers over a century ago. However, in 2015, with a Tory government set to ride roughshod over the people of the UK, I don’t find it any great cause for amusement.
Graham has found himself drawn to an attractive young girl named Helen Wotton. She has red hair and radical political views (I like her already). During their second meeting she tells him more about life in the new London:
‘I am still hardly more than a girl,’ she said. ‘But to me the world seems full of wretchedness. The world has altered since your day, altered very strangely. I have prayed that I might see you and tell you these things. The world has changed. As if a canker had seized it – and robbed life of – everything worth having.’
She turned a flushed face upon him, moving suddenly. ‘Your days were the days of freedom. Yes – I have thought. I have been made to think, for my life – has not been happy. Men are no longer free – no greater, no better than the men of your time. That is not all. This city – is a prison. Every city now is a prison. Mammon grips the key in his hand. Myriads, countless myriads, toil from the cradle to the grave. Is that right? Is that to be – for ever? Yes, far worse than in your time. All about us, beneath us, sorrow and pain. All the shallow delight of such life as you find about you, is separated by just a little from a life of wretchedness beyond any telling. Yes, the poor know it – they know they suffer. These countless multitudes who faced death for you two nights since –! You owe your life to them.’
‘Yes,’ said Graham slowly. ‘Yes. I owe my life to them.’
‘You come,’ she said, ‘from the days when this new tyranny of the cities was scarcely beginning. It is a tyranny – a tyranny. In your days the feudal war lords had gone, and the new lordship of wealth had still to come. Half the men in the world still lived out upon the free countryside. The cities had still to devour them. I have heard the stories out of the old books – there was nobility! Common men led lives of love and faithfulness then – they did a thousand things. And you – you come from that time.’
‘It was not –. But never mind. How is it now –?’
‘Gain and the Pleasure Cities! Or slavery – unthanked, unhonoured, slavery.’
‘Slavery!’ he said.
‘You don’t mind to say that human beings are chattels.’
‘Worse. That is what I want you to know, what I want you to see. I know you do not know. They will keep things from you, they will take you presently to a Pleasure City. But you have noticed men and women and children in pale blue canvas, with thin yellow faces and dull eyes?’
‘Speaking a horrible dialect, coarse and weak.’
‘I have heard it.’
‘They are the slaves you own – your slaves. They are the slaves of the Labour Company you own.’
‘The Labour Company! In some way – that is familiar. Ah! now I remember. I saw it when I was wandering about the city, after the lights returned, great fronts of buildings coloured pale blue. Do you really mean –?’
‘Yes. How can I explain it to you? Of course the blue uniform struck you. Nearly a third of our people wear it – more assume it now every day. This Labour Company has grown imperceptibly.’
‘What is this Labour Company?’ asked Graham.
‘In the old times, how did you manage with starving people?’
‘There was the workhouse – which the parishes maintained.’
‘Workhouse! Yes – there was something. In our history lessons. I remember now. The Labour Company ousted the workhouse. It grew – partly – out of something – you, perhaps, may remember it – an emotional religious organisation called the Salvation Army – that became a business company. In the first place it was almost a charity. To save people from workhouse rigours. Now I come to think of it, it was one of the earliest properties your Trustees acquired. They bought the Salvation Army and reconstructed it as this. The idea in the first place was to give work to starving homeless people.’
‘Nowadays there are no workhouses, no refuges and charities, nothing but that Company. Its offices are everywhere. That blue is its colour. And any man, woman or child who comes to be hungry and weary and with neither home nor friend nor resort, must go to the Company in the end – or seek some other way of death. The Euthanasy is beyond their means – for the poor there is no easy death. And at any hour in the day or night there is food, shelter and a blue uniform for all comers – that is the first condition of the Company’s incorporation – and in return for a day’s shelter the Company extracts a day’s work, and then returns the visitor’s proper clothing and sends him or her out again.’
‘Perhaps that does not seem so terrible to you. In your days men starved in your streets. That was bad. But they died – men. Those people in blue –. The proverb runs: “Blue canvas once and ever.” The Company trades in their labour, and it has taken care to assure itself of the supply. People come to it starving and helpless – they eat and sleep for a night and day, they work for a day, and at the end of the day they go out again. If they have worked well they have a penny or so – enough for a theatre or a cheap dancing place, or a kinematograph story, or a dinner or a bet. They wander about after that is spent. Begging is prevented by the police of the ways. Besides, no one gives. They come back again the next day or the day after – brought back by the same incapacity that brought them first. At last their proper clothing wears out, or their rags get so shabby that they are ashamed. Then they must work for months to get fresh. If they want fresh. A great number of children are born under the Company’s care. The mother owes them a month thereafter – the children they cherish and educate until they are fourteen, and they pay two years’ service. You may be sure these children are educated for the blue canvas. And so it is the Company works.’
‘And none are destitute in the city?’
‘None. They are either in blue canvas or in prison.’
‘If they will not work?’
‘Most people will work at that pitch, and the Company has powers. There are stages of unpleasantness in the work – stoppage of food – and a man or woman who has refused to work once is known by a thumb-marking system in the Company’s offices all over the world. Besides, who can leave the city poor? To go to Paris costs two Lions. And for insubordination there are the prisons – dark and miserable – out of sight below. There are prisons now for many things.’
‘And a third of the people wear this blue canvas?’
‘More than a third. Toilers, living without pride or delight or hope, with the stories of Pleasure Cities ringing in their ears, mocking their shameful lives, their privations and hardships. Too poor even for the Euthanasy, the rich man’s refuge from life. Dumb, crippled millions, all the world about, ignorant of anything but limitations and unsatisfied desires. They are born, they are thwarted, and they die. That is the state to which we have come.’ (Wells, 1898, p. 157-160).
Does that sound like a fair description of the current UK Government’s policy concerning the unemployed – the compulsion to unpaid ‘work placements’ and the benefit sanctions regime – or is it just my imagination?
In which The Author is wondering ‘What’s the bloody point?’
I’ve been feeling considerably down for the past week or so. There’s nothing unusual in that, of course; in fact, it’s been the normal state of play for the past five years.
I thought that the opportunity to finish in Waterstone’s was the light at the end of a very long tunnel. I realise now that it was nothing more than the headlights of an oncoming train.
My university career came to an abrupt end halfway through my second year, kicked into the long grass by a combination of back pain and bureaucratic SNAFU. Since then, everything that could go possibly wrong has gone wrong. My tentative steps towards setting up my own business, my writing projects, and even the Street Names Project, all seem to have run into the sand. I’m up to my ears in debt, and it’s only a question of time before I end up on the street.
The insurance policy on my endowment policy lapsed ages ago when I couldn’t afford to keep up the payments. I know the DWP are paying most of the interest on my mortgage, but when the mortgage ends I’ll be left with a massive shortfall that I’ll never be able to repay.
With this in mind, I’m seriously thinking of putting my house on the market. I know I won’t get much for it, but it’ll be enough to pay off my debts and give me a cushion while I look for a place to rent. It’s been going through my mind for the past couple of months, in fact. I can’t afford the work that needs to be done on the place, so I might as well cash in my chips and head for the exit.
Some of my pals have already headed for the exit. I had a message via Facebook a couple of weeks ago, from a friend of mine who’d decided (along with her husband) to up sticks and emigrate to Australia. She was picking my brains about setting up a blog to chart her adventures down under. I’m still waiting for the first instalment.
Another mate will be heading for the States in the near future. He’s (understandably) had a gutsful of this town, and this country, and has decided to make a new start while he’s still comparatively fit and healthy.
This morning, walking through Aberdare, I bumped into another old friend, and we stopped for a chat. She and her husband own their house in Aberdare. They don’t have any children, so there’ll be nobody to leave the house to when the time comes. I told her I was thinking of selling up and looking for a small place to rent for the rest of my days. She said she and her husband have been thinking along similar lines. After all, there’s only any real point of owning your own place if you’ve got someone who can inherit it when you die. That’s never going to happen to me, so it’ll just sit empty until someone snaps it up – as the previous owners did with my place, after Miss Morris became too infirm to stay there and went into a care home. By that time, it’ll be too far gone for anyone to move into it straight away. I might as well get out now and have done with it.
Besides all that, is there really any point of spending the rest of my days in Aberdare? There’s fuck all here anyway, and in ten years’ time there’ll be even less (see In the City and numerous related posts). In a proper town there’d be a library worthy of the name, a decent cinema (showing something other than Disney and Pixar kids’ films), a range of shops which aren’t just chainstores and charity shops, a proper museum (one with guest speakers and visiting exhibitions, not just a collection of old biscuit tins and soap packets), more than two pubs which are worth going into, a live music scene, public transport after 6 p.m., maybe even a real bookshop – who knows? In other words, all the things we used to have in Aberdare when I was growing up.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to go to London, except for the odd day trip. The people and the culture that made it so appealing thirty years ago have been squeezed out by the relentless transformation of the areas which gave it character and characters in equal measure. Only last weekend there was a mini-riot in Camden, when people protested against the gentrification of the locality clashed with police. The areas which used to be so run-down that only struggling artists and bohemian types wanted to live there (Clerkenwell, Spitalfields, Hoxton) are now so ‘trendy’ that the real inhabitants have been forced elsewhere. In another ten years, London will be a ghetto of the wealthy and corrupt, with a perpetual underclass of the deprived at its periphery, a struggling subculture of ‘hip’ artists and musicians, and a few entrepreneurs somehow managing to make a decent living. It’ll turn full circle and revert to the situation three hundred years ago. That’s progress for you.
Ross D. and Richard B. moved to Brighton when they disproved Samuel Johnson’s maxim and grew tired of London. Craig C. went to live in Brighton a while ago. Rob C. had also made a new start down there before his premature death rocked us all a couple of years ago (see Death of a Clown).
I’ve never been to Brighton, although the boys have extended me an open invitation to visit them for a few days. Rob H. went to stay with them during the Brighton Festival; he goes down to see them quite often. The Brighton Festival doesn’t seem to be what people usually have in mind when they hear the word ‘festival’. I imagine there’s live music and comedy and stuff like that, but also talks and book signings and film screenings and plays. I can’t imagine Rob H. grooving to some cod ‘festival’ reggae somehow, so there must be more to it than just the usual crap.
I’ve only ever been to three festivals in my life: the Ashton Court Festival in Bristol, back in about 1990 or 1991; the Cropredy Festival in Oxfordshire; and the Hay Festival, as I told you in Sentimental Journey. Of the three, the last one is the only one I’d definitely jump at the chance of going to again. I wouldn’t mind a return visit to Cropredy if the opportunity arose, and the Cambridge Folk Festival sounds quite appealing. Then there’s the Blyth Power Ashes, of course, which is a low-key long weekend of beer, folky punk and punky folk, cricket, and beer. That sounds quite appealing as well. However, I’d rather chew off my own penis than go to Glastonbury, the Isle of Wight, Latitude, Reading, or any of the other commercial festivals which clutter the summer calendar. Give me a couple of interesting talks, some films, a few stalls and second-hand bookshops, and a bit of jazz in the evening, and I’ll be a happy camper.
So, if not Brighton, where else? I’ve always been fond of Bristol, although I haven’t been there for several years. Last time I was there, a lot of the shops had gone and the culture of the place seemed to have changed. But it’s still got a decent alternative/green/left/anarcho subculture, so it’s on the list.
I feel instinctively drawn to Manchester, even though I only scratched the surface of it back in 2012. I should really revisit it and put some feelers out before I make a big commitment like that, though. I don’t know anyone in the area whom I could stay with while I was sussing the place out.
If my proofreading business does ever get off the ground, it really doesn’t matter where I choose to live. As long as I’ve got access to a phone line and the Internet, I can work from anywhere in the Global Village. Gareth L. and I were talking about getting the fuck out of the UK last time we chatted – before Emma’s name came up and ruined everything again, of course (see When the Inevitable Happens).
Gareth mentioned Greece as a possible destination. I warned him off that one, because I’d been reading the papers and could see that their economy was heading for one almighty fuck-up (which happened earlier this week, in fact). The idea of Bulgaria appealed to us both, though. Oddly enough, I caught a brief item about Bulgaria on Radio 4 this week. It’s transformed itself from a desperately poor Eastern Bloc client state to a thriving economy, with a good standard of education and a decent standard of living. (It dawned on me a few days ago that Gareth could be a candidate to buy my house, and then rent it out as a new income stream. Then I saw him in town yesterday and he hardly even said hello. We’re back to square one again.)
I’m sick and tired of this town, and I’m growing increasingly sick and tired of this country. Maybe I really should follow Maria and Deano and head straight for the airport. I’ve got nothing to lose by going, after all, and I’ve got very little to gain by staying here. Is there really any fucking point in hanging on, just waiting for something to turn up?
I think I’ll call into the estate agent’s later, and ask them how you go about selling a property with nine years still to run on the mortgage. If I go for a quick sale, I could be out of here by Xmas.
One thing’s for fucking certain: something’s got to change, and it’s got to change soon. If it doesn’t, I’ll be putting Emergency Program One into effect after all.
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.