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CHAPTER XII. [sic, ed.]
MOST of the dossers talk politics - and such politics. They are, as a rule,
amazingly and amusingly ignorant of even notorious facts, and circumstances that
are in every one's mouth. They remind one of the famous epitaph on Sir Nathaniel
Wraxall, " Men, measures, seasons, scenes, and facts all, misquoting,
misstating, misplacing, misdating." The orator at Cooney's is a fair sample
of the man who discusses politics in a doss-'ouse, and if there could be
anything more remarkable than their ignorance, it is the strained attention with
which such oracles are listened to by their companions. The natural result of
the circumstances amidst which these men live is that they lose, to a large
extent, whatever intelligence they may once have possessed, that their faculties
become blunted, and that they arc far less able to express themselves on topics
of political or general interest than an ordinarily sharp fourth-standard boy in
a Board School. Blue-gown, for example, had only one idea in regard to what he
called "them bloomin' pollertics." He wanted to marry the Baroness
Burdett-Coutts, in [-133-] which event, he said, he
should be able to reform the common lodging-houses. He said this in all sober
seriousness, and he is not the only man I have met in these places with ideas so
childish. Those who do talk serious politics in a sensible fashion, generally
discuss the fair-trade heresy, and I am bound to say that I never, during all my
experience of the doss-'ouses, heard a single man who had a good word to say for
our system of free imports. This made a remarkable impression on me; for,
opposed to them as I was, I could not fail to notice that every man who had
formerly occupied a good position ascribed the stagnation in trade which had
ruined him to Free Trade as understood and practised in England. Even those most
strongly prejudiced in favour of our present fiscal system cannot but ponder
over the fact that so many of the poorer class attribute all their misfortunes
But the particular phase of doss-'ouse politics to which I wish to call attention is one which I venture to believe constitutes a growing danger to the State; namely, the strong predisposition of the vast majority of the dossers in favour of that militant socialism which leads to revolution.
These men are discontented, and many of them have reason; but, as is well known, for every discontented man in the country who has a real grievance, there are a score who have none. And all are equally dissatisfied. They pass their days in the streets, where they see wealth, property, and accumulated treasure, which they may envy but dare not hope to [-134-] share. They come home in the evening to the loathsome place in which they are to spend the night, a den reeking with dirt, and breathing with horrible mephitic odours. Then they ponder over social inequalities; they brood upon their undoubted wrongs; they exaggerate their grievances; they forget or condone their own misconduct or mistakes; and they become, not unnaturally perhaps, enemies to a constitution under which they suffer such hardships, and to which they mistakenly ascribe their evil lot. This accounts for the number of men who sit apart from the rest of their companions in the lodging-houses, silent, moody, discontented; pondering over their real grievances and aggravating them by dreaming of imaginary wrongs. Draw one of these men into conversation, and in all probability he will first declare that he is condemned to live in squalor and misery because he has no vote, and then he will proceed to inveigh against our present social system, and express a pious aspiration for the advent of the day of reckoning between the "classes" and the " masses."
The times are specially favourable to the growth of such a spirit. If a man whose feelings have been wrought upon in the manner I suggest goes out on a Sunday morning, he has dinned into his ears from the street corners the pernicious doctrines of an impracticable Socialism. If he opens a newspaper he reads of conspiracies against the existence of law and the possession of property in every quarter of the globe. The Anarchists in America, the Nihilists in Russia, the Socialists in Holland, Belgium, France, and Germany, [-135-] and, nearer home, the Fenians in Ireland, are all engaged in the same war. He hears dim and vague accounts of what the Revolution in France was like, and how the sans cullotes endeavoured to hasten the millenium there. And he is the sans cullotte of England. His discontent grows, and determination to do something - it scarce matters to him what - grows with it.
Of course there are a number of people who will pooh-pooh the existence of this state of things. "No one would ever be so discontented or fatuous as to attempt to cause a revolution in England. There is no danger, or, at all events, not for our day." Ah, there it is "After us the deluge." The old selfishness that allowed similar and greater evils to grow in unhappy France until at last the deluge came roaring and rushing and sweeping down with it all that was worthiest and best as well as all that was meanest and worst.
But are we so secure? Does the position of affairs in our own country and abroad justify such confidence. In America, those who know assert that the industrial war - the struggle between capital and labour - has only just commenced. In Germany, political passion is seething and hissing, and may any day boil over. In France, financial difficulties may at any moment precipitate a crisis. And here in England the terribly prolonged industrial depression is our great foe, and should any of the other catastrophes hinted at occur, that depression may be so far intensified as to constitute a formidable danger.
[-136-] We have not been without warnings. When last winter a brutal mob rushed through the streets and looted the shops of the West-end, most people said it was the work of roughs and larrikins whose only object was plunder. They grievously misunderstood the facts. Many - nay most - of the men who took part in the riots of that day came from the low lodging-houses, and though the majority perhaps were actuated solely by cupidity and greed, there was many a stern, determined man there who believed that in plundering and destroying he was merely executing the righteous wrath of starved, oppressed, and discontented labour against harsh, bloated, and unsympathetic capital.
Next winter the doss-'ouses will be fuller than ever, for trade seems to be going to the bad faster than before, and men are thrown out of work by scores every week. If the winter be long and hard, men will "clem," women will wail, and children cry for bread. If the winter be dark as well as long and hard, men may try to avoid "clemming" as they did last year, but on a larger scale. To wish that the men who dwell in common lodging-houses might be contented, would be to wish them devoid of every quality, every thought, every aspiration that raises them above the brutes. To deny the existence of their grievance is to enhance its intensity. To admit its existence and do nothing to remedy it, is to give just cause for the growth of discontent and for any means that discontent may take to proclaim itself.
It may be - pray Heaven it may be - that something [-137-] will be done, and speedily. If so, my object will be achieved, and I can only trust that whatever means may be taken to secure the amelioration of the condition of those unhappy ones whose lot I have endeavoured to depict, may be successful.
It may be, on the other hand, that this terrible abuse may be allowed to grow and spread like a foul, festering ulcer. What may happen then, who knows? We can only be guided by what has happened in other lands where the just complaints of the poor have been ignored, and their cry for justice and for pity has been unheard. It may yet be so in England. Should we elect to go on in the old rut, strong in the consciousness and the confidence of our own wealth and power - wealth and power which in this connection constitute our greatest danger, because they contrast so bitterly with the poverty and weakness of those who plead for help unheard-it may be that we shall be harshly awakened and cruelly disillusionized; that before very many years have flown we shall be compelled to read in haggard, wolfish faces, robbed of every tender or human expression, to hear in hoarse cries of menace, ay, even of lawless triumph, that lesson that has been so sharply taught in other lands than ours-that what might once, not long since, have been Reform, has grown and swelled and gathered force and volume until the torrent can no longer be stemmed, and we are confronted by REVOLUTION.