Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 6 - "Bookey"

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    "Do you believe that one good turn deserves another?"
    The question was addressed to me by a labouring man carrying his right hand in a sling. Though the day was piercingly cold, he was very poorly clad, and looked both cold and hunger-pinched. I had noticed him approaching with an evident intention of speaking to me, and had quite expected what, during the inclement weather then prevailing, I had come to regard as the usual question, namely, whether I had got "such a thing" as a relief ticket of any kind to give away. I was a little taken  aback by the unusual character of the question that was put to me, so that it was only after a moment's hesitation that I answered - "
    "Well, yes, in a general way I do believe one good turn deserves another."
    "Ah, I thought you would think so," said the man, "so you won't blame me for speaking to you, even if nothing comes of it. I owe Bookey Bishop a good turn, and as I can't pay him myself, for it is a case of all in the downs with me at present, I felt bound to speak to some one that might be willing to help him - you know Bookey?" he concluded questioningly.
    "I know him by sight," I answered, " and have heard him holding forth occasionally."
    [-78-] "You mustn't be too hard on him over that," put in the labourer quickly; " his bark is worse than his bite not, mind you, but what there is a lot of truth in what he says. But he wouldn't harm anybody, either rich or poor. A kinder-hearted old fellow don't live; and, in fact, it was his kindness to me and mine that brought him into the dreadfully low water he is in. I had a little girl lying ill, and the doctor ordered her nourishment; but being out of work, I could not get nourishment for her, and she was pining away. Well, Bookey he hears of this, and he comes and sees the poor little mite, and he gives my wife five shillings out of his stock-money, saying that I can pay him when I get something to do, and that he will work short a bit till then. Three days afterwards I did get a job, and one of the first things I meant to do was to pay the old man, but I had not been to work an hour when I got my hand smashed, and had to be brought home. This put us in a worse fix than ever; and Bookey he comes forward again as the friend in need ; and, to make a long story short, he stripped himself of stock-money helping us. He said he would get a job of work at something till he could put money together again, but just then this spell of cold weather set in, and out-door work was not to be had. I have been forced at last to apply to the parish, but Bookey won't do that; he keeps himself to himself, and tries to put a good face on things; says he will rub along somehow, and will be all right when the weather breaks and work stirs, and all that. As a matter of fact he must be starving, and I thought that if you would call upon him - as of your own accord, for he would be down upon me [-79-] if he knew I had spoken about him - you might be able to help him. You may take my word for it, you would find his a deserving case, whatever outsiders may think of his spouting a bit."
    "It is not a question of his being a spouter, but of his being in need," I answered. "I know where he lives. I shall be that way later in the day, and will give him a call."
    The man popularly known in my district as Bookev Bishop was a fish-hawker of the humbler kind. He had a morning "round" in a very poor quarter and an evening "pitch" at a certain street corner of that quarter. Like most other traders of the "gutter merchant" type, Bookey could "patter," but his powers of talk went considerably beyond mere trade "patter." He was something of an orator, and among his own class was regarded as something of an oracle also. He spoke at local outdoor meetings of the unemployed, and was wont to improve the occasion at other times if opportunity offered.
    His language, though decidedly strong, was never coarse or slangy. His hearers accounted it "book English," and hence his sobriquet of "Bookey." In a general way he would have been set down as a socialist, not to say a revolutionist. The usual theme of his discourses was the contrast between rich and poor. He took up his parable against the rich, was given to dwell with a grim satisfaction upon the figure - and the application thereof - of the difficulty of a camel passing through a needle's eye, and he would make much of the saying that the rich have their good things in this life. For those of the rich who considered not the poor, who took up the [-80-] attitude that they were not their brothers' keepers, and applied the text, "The poor always ye have with you," as a justification for a selfish indifference - for these Bookev was given to prophesy evil things; a good (or bad) time coming when they would be, as he put it, "smitten hip and thigh, from Dan to Beersheba."
    In his way, and among the classes who attended such meetings as he addressed, Bookev was regarded as an effective and "fetching" speaker. The common opinion was that, if he had been a self-seeker, he could have done a great deal better for himself as a professional spouter than he did as a fish-hawker. But Bookey was too honest and earnest to make a trade of the advocacy of the cause of the poor. Prejudiced and bitter and unconsciously unjust he might be, but when he spoke of and for the poor he spoke out of the fulness of the heart and with the wisdom, or at any rate the knowledge, that comes of experience.
    When in the course of the afternoon I was passing along the street in which Bookey lived, and considering how I should open communication with him, I saw the man himself trotting and stamping up and down the pavement in front of the house in which he lodged. Whether he was as old as he looked I did not know, but he looked fully sixty years of age. He was tall and thin, with a stooping gait and a careworn, intelligent-looking face. He was the first to speak as I came up to him.
    "I'm taking a constitutional," he remarked in a tone of explanation - "a poor man's constitutional. The artists of the pavement write, 'Hunger is a sharp thorn;' [-81-] but my experience - and I have tried both - is that cold is a sharper. Want of bread wouldn't have driven me out in this fashion, but want of firing has."
    "I have not got a coal ticket with me."
    "I am sorry you should think I was 'spelling' for a coal ticket," he interrupted; "if such an idea had occurred to me, I should have asked for it straightforwardly."
    "I quite believe that," I answered; "but what I was going to say was that I would like to have a little talk with you indoors, if you don't object; and as we can't well be without a fire on a day like this, I would order a sack of coals and some wood at the coal-shed here."
    "Well," he said, after a moment's hesitation, "I hope I wouldn't allow myself to be even frost-bitten out of a reasonable feeling of independence; but I don't wish to appear either Quixotic or ungrateful, and I think I would be both to refuse a gift offered as you offer this, for, of course, it is not of a fire for yourself, but of making a gift to me, that you are thinking."
    "Let us get the coal," I said ; and without further speech we walked on together to the coal-shed, from which, accompanied by a man wheeling the coals, we proceeded to Bookey's lodgings. He occupied a single upstairs back room in a house in which every room save his was let to a family. Glancing round the apartment while Booker was laying the fire, I saw that, save for a scanty bundle of bedding in a corner and half-a-dozen ragged volumes standing on top of a sideboard cupboard, it was absolutely destitute of furniture.
    "I cannot ask you to sit down," Bookey remarked; [-82-] "I have been compelled, metaphorically speaking, to eat my table and chair, and the fish-box that served me as a seat later has had to go as firing."
    "You have managed to save your library," I said, scanning the titles of the books, which consisted of a Bible, a shilling Shakespeare, Burns's poems, an old volume of Wordsworth, an odd volume of Crabbe, and cheap editions of Carlyle's " Past and Present" and  "Latter-Day Pamphlets."
    "Yes," Bookey replied; "their poverty - of course I mean their material poverty, their coverless, soiled, dog-eared condition - was their protection. As books they were unsaleable, and as waste paper they would scarcely have brought the price of a meal or a fire. I know a good deal of their contents by heart, or else, apart from that, they are sealed books to me for the present. I cannot read without glasses, and my spectacles, being among my few pawnable possessions, are for the time being deposited as material guarantee for a loan of six-pence. A man must be poor indeed now-a-days," he went on, "if he cannot become possessed of a few good books if his desire is in that direction. I obtained mine by barter with the street-barrow class of second-hand booksellers. I got the Shakespeare for a smoked haddock, and the Carlyles and the poetry in one transaction for an assorted lot of three mackerel, two bloaters, and a pair of kippered herrings."
    "An exchange of food for time body for food for the mind," I remarked.
    "Just so," he said, "and a mutually fair and profitable exchange, for the fish did not cost me much, and the [-83-] books were certainly cheap literature, for they formed part of a parcel that the dealer had purchased by weight at three-halfpence per pound."
    "I have heard how you came to be without stock-money," was my next observation. "It was very generous of you."
    "But very unwise, I suppose you think?" he said.
    "Well, not very worldly-wise, perhaps," I replied; "but I am not speaking to blame you."
    "Nor do I blame myself," he said quietly. "At the time I did not realise how disastrous to myself the result would be; but even with that knowledge, if the thing were to do again, I would do it; their need was greater than mine. I shall get over it," he continued, with a faint smile. "When the weather breaks I dare say I shall be able to find some employment, and then, by living close, I shall be able to scrape a little stock-money together. I don't suppose I would have any great difficulty in getting my customers back again. In a matter of that kind the poor have a stronger sense of abstract justice than the rich."
    "I am afraid you do not credit the rich with many virtues, either abstract or concrete."
    "I would not wilfully do the rich an injustice," he answered, speaking in slow, deliberate tones. "I know that there are numbers of them who individually do all that in them lies to bridge the gulf that separates the rich and poor, who to that end give not only money, but time and energy, and sympathy also. But, however numerous these may be absolutely, they are, relatively speaking, the exceptions. That their number is increas-[-84-]ing I believe, and that they may prove to be pioneers is my daily prayer - for the sake of the rich as well as for the sake of the poor. The rich, as a body, do not consider the poor as a body, if they did there would not be this pitiless night, as you know there will be thousands homeless near a thousand homes. Nor would there be -  a worse thing perhaps - tens of thousands herded together in such homes as make the word a mockery - homes so-called that make decency of life impossible, and rob even death of its dignity. The rich do not understand the poor, do not seek to understand them," the old man went on, beginning to pace the room excitedly, "and in their ignorance and indifference they add insult to injury and breed bitterness of spirit. It is in the ranks of the rich that the latter-day Pharisees are chiefly to be found. These, when the poor need help, give them platitudes. They preach patience to them, tell a man who is starving - nay, we will say nothing of that - but tell a man who sees his wife and children starving that he must be patient. They would have the poor believe that the existing state of things is all for the best in the end. I have even heard some amongst them pervert the message of the Master by unctuously applying to the poor and their sufferings the text, 'Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.' There needs not to preach patience to the poor; their patient long-suffering is a thing to marvel at; but it may not endure for ever. If a day comes when the poor cease to possess themselves with patience, it will be a day of reckoning for the rich. I do not speak thus from any merely personal feeling of bitterness. Until the last [-85-] week or so I have never known what I would now consider any extremity of poverty. I could have been happy in my own state but for the unregarded misery I saw around me; I have come to realise practically and literally and thankfully that man wants but little here below."
    As he at length paused for breath, and stood with eves spark1ing and countenance aglow with excitement, he might have served a painter for a study of "an old man eloquent." As no purpose was for the moment to be served by continuing a general discussion upon the terrible problem of poverty, I sought to give a new direction to the conversation by saying questioningly, "You were not always a poor fish-hawker?"
    "No," he answered, his face relaxing into a smile, as he noticed I was observing him somewhat curiously, "but, like the needy knife-grinder, I have no story to tell. I was the only son of a rich tradesman in one of our large manufacturing centres. I inherited his business, but not his business capacity. I lacked, from a trader's point of view, tact and energy. Moreover, I was troubled with scruples as to the honesty or morality of certain practices of the particular trade to which I was called. I was a reader, and dreamer of dreams; I meddled in any small way with large social questions, and tried to put into practice little theories of my own. As I did not attend to my business with the singleness of purpose necessary to success, it - rightly enough - began to pass away from me. It gravitated to traders in the same line who had tact and energy, and had not scruples concerning anything that was a 'custom of the trade.' 
    [-86-] Indeed, there were some among them who had not scruples even concerning things that were not customs of the trade, men to whom an unjust balance was not an abomination - unless it was found out - men who were, nevertheless, accounted highly respectable, who went to church, and did their alms in public, who, as Hood puts it - 
     'Gave to the poor at the temple door,
        But rolled them overnight.'
    When the business had wholly passed from my hands I left my native town and came to London, where, after a variety of commonplace experiences and misadventures, I at last found my level as a street fish-hawker. As to my single self, I could, as I said just now, be happy in that condition. With a fire in the grate, a loaf in the cupboard, and a good book to read, I can feel my wants supplied. But no man with a heart to feel and a brain to think could live as long and as intimately among the poor as I have done and think only of his single self; he would not be a man if he could. Whether I shall remain a fish-hawker or have once more to make some new departure in my way of life will depend," he concluded, "upon whether I can raise stock-money again within a reasonable time."
    "How much - or, perhaps I ought to say, how little - in the way of stock-money would enable you to make a fresh start?"
    "I could make a beginning with ten or twelve shillings," he answered.
    "I think I might get you that amount - by way of a loan," I added quickly, seeing that he was about to say something in the way of refusal.
    [-87-] "I have no security to offer," he said, shaking his head. "As I remarked before, I don't wish to be Quixotic, but I do wish to be honest, not only for my own conscience' sake, but because I would not willingly risk doing anything of a character that might tend to harden the hearts of others against the poor. And for a man like me to fail to repay a loan granted from charitable considerations would have that tendency."
    I hastened to assure him that, in any case, his honesty of purpose would not be doubted, and after a good deal of persuasion he was induced to accept the loan of amount sufficient to give him an effective start in business, and redeem from the pawnbrokers his few "belongings." His belief that his old customers would come back to him was fully justified. He repaid the loan rapidly and to the uttermost farthing, and refused to accept any further assistance, though, characteristically enough, when the labourer whom he had served in his hour of need got into work again and offered to repay him, he refused to receive the money.
    Bookey is usually spoken of as a "bit of a character," and from what has been told of him here I think it will be agreed that he deserved that description. He was a truly curiously blended character. Often bitter of speech, he was always tender of heart, and and the most sordid surroundings he consistently lived up to a high ideal. His voice is still among the voices - happily growing more and more numerous - that are crying in the wilderness over the wants of the poor. 
    As he said of himself, he is at times a dreamer of dreams. His views of the possibilities of social regene-[-88-]ration would in a general way be regarded as Utopian, as quite "outside the range of practical politics." Nevertheless they are high views, and, so far as he is concerned, nobly held. He is "poor and content," and therefore rich enough.
    It is for those among whom his lot has been cast that he broods and speaks and makes sacrifices. On their behalf he is an enthusiast ; and he has the faith of his enthusiasm. The axioms of the practical politicians and political economists notwithstanding, he believes that even now we are coming within measurable distance of a time when the poor, thought still always with us, will be greatly more considered than heretofore - a time when they will no longer be condemned to eat the bread of tears all the days of their lives.