Asbo, Jago, and chavismo: What party hat for Arthur Morrison?
By Peter Miles
First, a word to Google. Dead people do not have birthdays. I hate to be a party-pooper in the eyes of any zombies still celebrating Halloween, but Google will insist on informing me that today is Nietzsche’s 169th birthday or the 143rd birthday of the chap who first put a metal strip in a banknote or the 158th birthday of the Czech inventor of the bicycle seat — when it never is. For the dead do not have birthdays. The clue is in their name: they are dead. One may, of course, concede anniversaries of their births to those gone to meet their Maker (or whatever, Nietzsche), but the conviction that birthdays persist in defiance of mortality is largely born of corporate consumerist fantasy. Nietzsche’s birthdays may not have been a gas at the best of times, but tombs and balloons are a bad mix. Happy returns for the dead are not to be contemplated. Sentences involving corpses and the bumps are in poor taste. Probably I need go no further, for while this 1st November does indeed bring the 150th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Morrison, I rather doubt that the name of the author of A Child of the Jago is inscribed at the bottom of even Google’s much scraped birthday barrel.
Which I now begin to feel — most inconsistently — is a shame, because both the cultural debate and the political issue in which Arthur Morrison is a significant protagonist remain in full swing.
I know this thanks to the serendipity of a Carmarthen bookshop three-for-two offer a few weeks ago that induced me to pick up Robert Macfarlane’s Wild Places and Owen Jones’s Chavs – and then left me fumbling for my freebie until I settled a trifle grudgingly on Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo: State of England. (No offence, Mr Amis, you came in ahead of 38 other possible choices.) Now Robert Macfarlane striding manfully through the Outer Hebrides is not germane to the matter in hand, so he can sit this one out. Choosing Chavs was a straightforward matter of guilt at just not having got round to it, exacerbated by just having watched Jones in impressive form in conversation with Ken Loach, Dot Gibson, and Jeremy Hardy after a showing of Loach’s The Spirit of ’45. More practical considerations landed me with Lionel Asbo. Somehow I’ve read embarrassingly little of Amis’s fiction after having become stranded in the middle of London Fields some years ago, and some reparation was due; moreover, the cover of Lionel Asbo suggested it might be more of a Caffe Nero book than either Wild Places (and in any case I didn’t have my Oxford Dictionary with me) or, indeed, Chavs. It was raining, you see, and I had two hours on my own to kill. In Carmarthen.Now I enjoyed Lionel Asbo, though if I’d looked more carefully at that front cover, the words of praise it bore from the Mail and the Telegraph might have pressed my buttons. To be honest, I laughed, even snorted, a good deal. But one of my few points of resemblance to George Orwell lies in a capacity to enjoy books that I know I really shouldn’t. Orwell found Evelyn Waugh “about as good a novelist as one can be… while holding untenable opinions”. Quite so. And quite so again in the case of me and Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo — or in the case of me and how I must conclude that book positions me to think, or rather, whom I conclude it positions me to despise.
As for that word “chavs”, I had tended to assume it was public-school patois for the working class — a contraction of “chavista” (a supporter of Hugo Chavez), understood as meaning those deemed by their privileged “betters” to want “something for nothing” (such as incapacity benefit or the Venezuelan oil industry). Over-sophistication on my part, I fear, for Owen Jones principally contends that “chav” is an acronym for “Council Housed And Violent”. Enough: for Jones’s sub-title — The Demonization of the Working Class — is far more important, encapsulating the process that has led to an inversion of political imperatives in contemporary Britain, to the promotion and safeguarding of the privileged and the penalizing of the poor on the grounds of poverty being more a consequence of individual moral failure than of social or economic structures (Weber and Tawney through the looking-glass I guess). Despite some ifs and buts and unless I have missed the point entirely (along with the Mail and the Telegraph), just such a demonization of the working class is what Lionel Asbo: State of England offers. To me it reads like a reconstruction of the culture of twenty-first century Britain by a future archaeologist with no evidence at his disposal on which to build any construction of our lives beyond runs of the Sun, the Daily Mail, and the Jeremy Kyle show. It’s all there: pit-bulls, lager, string vests, bog-brush hairstyles, single mothers, absent fathers, bling, the lottery and patterns of kinship designed to give a family historian apoplexy, along with disturbing inabilities to know a decent wine or how to eat lobster.
So where, I wonder, might Arthur Morrison have figured in Owen Jones’s argument? Was Morrison one of those to have demonized the working class? Many have reacted as if he did, but his Jago — the old Nichol slum — was a specific social problem, a place largely apart from the mass of the East End working class from which Morrison himself sprang, and which other sources documented in not dissimilar terms. One has to admit that Morrison may inadvertently have helped facilitate a long-lived tendency, which Owen Jones now finds resurgent, to mistake — or indeed promote — instances of what can seem a “feral” underclass for the working class itself. As far as the matter of demons goes, it is true that Morrison depicted his slum characters as inhabitants of Hell. The fires on the dark horizon of the opening chapter of A Child of the Jago announce as much: “Hell? And how far’s that? You’re in it!” But distinctions need to be preserved between demons and the damned. Morrison — like Jack London after him in The People of the Abyss — was more interested in charting the ineluctable mechanics of social damnation than in demonizing its victims. While oppressed by a recognition that those mechanics could ultimately result in the production of the brutal, the repulsive and the irredeemable, what Morrison demonized was the slum itself, its worst effects and the larger society that condoned its existence.
When next in Hell, keep a close eye on who’s holding the pitchforks.
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Image credit: Photograph of Boundary Street, part of the old Nichol slum in East London, 1890. City of London Metropolitan Archives [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.