By Peter Miles
As every schoolchild knows, never give more than one explanation: rather than uncertainty, it suggests a conscious or unconscious smokescreen. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Sigmund Freud demonstrated as much by reference to a “defence offered by a man who was accused by his neighbour of having returned a kettle in a damaged condition. In the first place, he said, he had returned the kettle undamaged; in the second place it already had holes in it when he borrowed it; and in the third place, he had never borrowed it at all.”
Oddly enough, somewhat earlier, in his preface to the third edition of A Child of the Jago, the East End novelist Arthur Morrison alluded to a “lady who, being assailed with a request for the loan of a saucepan, defended herself in these words: ‘Tell yer mother I can’t lend ‘er the saucepan, consekince o’ ‘avin’ lent it to Mrs Brown, besides which I’m a-usin’ of it meself, an’ moreover it’s gone to be mended, an’ what’s more I ain’t got one.’”
Even while gliding – with, as I fancy it, Freudian panache – over the differences between an East End saucepan and a Viennese kettle, it remains clear that this is the same joke. So how did Freud come to rehearse one of Arthur Morrison’s? How I would love the explanation to be that Freud had read A Child of the Jago. It’s not completely unlikely that Morrison’s account of the childhood chemistry of nature and environment could have found its way to Freud’s desk. There have been far less likely readers. One of Oscar Wilde’s final acts was to order a copy of A Child of the Jago from Brentano’s. (In Reading Gaol Wilde had asked for, but not been permitted, Arthur Morrison’s writings: too much inside information on criminal life, one must assume.) Of course, this thread linking Freud and Morrison may imply no more than the migration across Europe of a music-hall joke that both Freud and Morrison had heard, and perhaps in those variant forms. To my shame, however, I have yet to put my hands on the translation into German of A Child of the Jago: if you have that little Tauchnitz volume (1897) on your shelves, could I bother you to lean over and check whether or not it includes the preface that Morrison only supplied his novel in the same year? If it does, I shall be plagued even further by the possibility of direct influence. On the other hand, the joke may go back to Babylon and beyond…. Oh dear. Multiple explanation again.
I find a similar problem when it comes to the young and street crime: theft; knife-crime; mugging; burglary; assault; gang warfare; even riot and murder. Whether thinking of events in London over the last twelve months or events depicted there over a century ago in A Child of the Jago, the upshot has been and was the same: multiple explanation from commentators and as much smoke as light. Morrison used his saucepan version of the joke to describe the range of reviewers’ attitudes to his book. His depiction of the Old Nichol slum (which he called “the Jago”) variously struck reviewers as too realistic and completely inaccurate – and, besides, some appeared to maintain, the slum had never existed: a dissonant chorus which he could only hear harmonizing into the slosh of a general washing of hands.
Of course there genuinely are multiple explanations of social problems, both in Morrison’s day and our own. Whether with Shakespeare’s Prospero we talk in terms of “nature” and “nurture” or, with Charles Darwin’s successors we set “heredity” or “genetic determinism” against “environmental factors,” such debates have persisted through the centuries whenever crises arise that involve issues of personal responsibility, social welfare and political intervention. Morrison’s novel itself, in dealing as he put it with the “worst neighbourhood I had ever known,” touches on such issues as poverty, housing, heredity, education, parenting, alcohol, leisure, culture, irreligion, workless households, peer pressure, and the moral inversions of a community betrayed by moral luck. The child of a workshy petty criminal father and an inadequate mother, socialized into crime, what chance has young Dicky Perrott, the novel’s central figure; what chance of finding a way out of the destiny the slum has mapped out for him? Morrison’s answer is “none,” even in despite of his own rise from working-class roots in Poplar to middle-class affluence and (in later days) upper-class hobnobbery.
Beyond the novel’s pages Morrison sadly leant more explicitly towards a monolithic explanation of the role of heredity and towards a view that the answer to such an underclass as the Jago presented lay in emigration, penal settlements, eugenic apartheid and other constraints on the reproduction of the “Jago rats.” “Let the weed,” he chillingly maintained, “die out”; only then can we “raise the raisable.” Yet H. G. Wells pointed out the anomaly of Jago characters who, in despite of their author, did improve their circumstances in the course of Morrison’s story. Turning points in the story of Dicky Perrott, moreover, suggest Morrison was at times unresponsive to the implications of his own drama. Dicky’s point of greatest energy and self-esteem comes when he secures a job as a shop-assistant, a moment when he most certainly does have both worthy aspirations and a chance. Morrison manages Dicky’s rapid loss of the job to suggest that the Jago inevitably reclaims its own, but one senses that it does so principally because Morrison so stacks the novel’s plot, as well as heredity and environment, against Dicky. Why should Dicky not be a shop-assistant, as Morrison became a journalist, writer of fiction, and art connoisseur?
Youth unemployment is hardly the only explanation or by any means a complete explanation of today’s gang violence or the London riots and, indeed, work experience in retail has hardly proved a panacea. But as an explanation, youth unemployment and the sub-cultures it nurtures have considerably more form than, say, the rise of consumerism with attitude. I can afford to mull over the multiple explanations of Freud and Morrison telling the same joke a good deal longer; in other matters I tend to reach for Occam’s razor in the confidence that current rates of youth unemployment are in any case socially wasteful, morally unacceptable and damaging to a generation. In Morrison’s novel the Jago isn’t just a place, but a state of mind; how disturbing that Dicky Perrotts may still find themselves locked into it.
Peter Miles is editor of the World’s Classics editions of Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago and Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online has granted free access for a limited time to the biography of Arthur Morrison.