Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - A Dog in the Manger

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[-81-]

A DOG IN THE MANGER.

Bank Holiday on Hampstead heights - The holiday-hater - His studied contempt for appearances and his objections to being "ordered about by Act of Parliament" - He favours me with his opinions and sentiment as regards Bank Holidays - Diabolic designs of those who invented them - The wives of working men more to blame than their husbands for taking kindly to the swindle - The happy hammer-man and the holiday-hater's contempt for him.

THERE are, few pleasanter spectacles than that which rewards him who, on a bright spring morning, climbs to the summit of Hampstead heights, and witnesses the thronging thither of the thousands who desire no better than to spend Bank Holiday on the heath.
    If I were the inventor of the noble institution in question, I think I should find much pleasure in contemplating its practical working from this point of view. I should prefer it, perhaps, to what could be seen at either of the parks  - Richmond, Kew, or Greenwich - mainly because the festival as observed on Hampstead Heath is a holiday outing pure and simple. All the fun of Hampstead fair the visitors make for themselves. There are no level lawns there, nor leafy lanes, and the trees arc few and far between. It has, in fact, nothing else to recommend it to the holiday-seeker - exclusive, of course, of its exceedingly primitive tea-gardens and the railed-in space for donkey riding - but its length and breadth, its picturesque ruggedness, and its deliciously bracing air.
    But for tens of thousands of the people these are attractions sufficient. Give them these as a base of operations, and they themselves will supply the rest. They love to roam at will, unbeadled and unbidden, with no one to request them to keep off the grass, and with no grim notice-boards frowning down on them with a surly reminder of the pains and penalties they will incur unless they toe the mark in a becoming manner, and refrain from overstepping the bounds of strict propriety. It is, unfortunately, but too true that the crowd for which Hampstead Heath has attractions at holiday-time includes a considerable number of the objectionable individuals to whom strict decorum, or even common decency, is hateful at all times, but they are [-82-] few as compared with the mechanic and respectable labouring class, who seemingly patronize the heath more numerously each succeeding Bank Holiday.
    I was so impressed with this last-mentioned fact that I remarked it to an individual lounging on a grassy bank on the top of which I was at that moment standing. Had I noticed his decidedly unholiday aspect before I accosted him, it is improbable that any conversation would have occurred between us. He was a broad-shouldered individual, attired in a moleskin suit such as is commonly worn by men engaged in the iron-working line of business, and to judge from his general aspect he might that morning have walked straight from the workshop to the spot where I discovered him. There was a slovenliness about his dress that suggested a studied contempt for appearances rather than a constitutional disregard for tidiness. His boots were unlaced, his waistcoat buttoned awry, and his black neckerchief, a mere wisp tied with a knot, was under his ear. In reply to my observation that it was gratifying to find such a vast number of persons making the most of the Whitsun Bank Holiday, he shrugged his shoulders, and removing his pipe from his mouth for an instant, replied that that was a matter of opinion.
    "It does not seem to be your opinion," said I.
    "It's miles off it," he made answer, with an energetic jerk of his head. "You may think that it is a gratifying sight to see the working classes assemble here in their thousands because an Act of Parliament orders 'em to do so - p'r'aps you may have your private reasons for thinking so; but if you'd like to know what my opinion as a red-hot Radical on the subject is, I am neither ashamed nor afraid to tell you that your precious Bank Holiday is nothing better than an artful dodge on the part of the upper classes to keep down the lower."
    "To ensure them four holidays a year is an odd way of keeping them down, isn't it?"
    "There s the artfulness of it," replied the "red-hot Radical," rising briskly to a sitting posture, as he shook the ashes out of his pipe and put it in his waistcoat pocket, as though not at all averse to arguing the matter. "What do I do here, says you, If I don't agree with Bank Holidays? You might think, seeing me as I am in my working clothes, that I haven't got any others to wear. You'd think wrong. I've got as good a suit of clothes [-83-] as a working man could wish to put on his back - not slop things, but made to measure. You won't catch me encouraging the ready-made 'merchant tailors,' as they've got the impudence to call themselves, who grind the flesh off the bones of the sons and daughters of toil, so that they may go rollicking about in scarlet and fine linen, and gorging on the fat of the land. I've got a good West of England coat and weskit, and I've got a pair of tweeds that would stand alone almost on the score of quality; but I d scorn to wear 'em on a Bank Holiday. likewise I've got a watch that I'd back to go against any one in England of its size, and a silver chain, hall-marked, and that turns the scale against six half-crowns; but no, thanky. When I come out on a Bank Holiday I leave 'em at home. If I want to know what the time is the church clock is good enough for me, or I d rather be a few minutes wrong, going by the clocks in the public houses. I haven't cleaned my boots this morning, says you. I know I haven't. I wouldn't degrade a honest blacker and shiner in doing it, that I might grovel before those who took on themselves to prescribe a holiday for me, because it will do me good just the same as a dose of physic, and insist on my swallowing it, whether I find it pleasant or whether I don't.
    "There are not many working men of my opinion," says you. I own it. Therefore my opinion is more valuable than theirs, owing to the rarity of it. I'm dead against the whole thing, from the sole of my foot to the crown of my head, and if I wore a tall hat, instead of a cap, blessed if I wouldn't brush it the wrong way. Why would I? Because I can see through the craftiness of the whole thing, as could any man with half a grain of common sense. There s something under all this, I said to myself when first the Bank Holiday was proclaimed by Act of Parliament, and the working classes were going off their heads with delight about it. It is beautiful and smooth on the surface but I'll bet a wager there's artfulness under it, if any one took the trouble to dive down a little and look for it. I dived down, sir, and there it was as plain as a pikestaff. The artfulness, I mean. I asked myself the question, 'Who is the chap who has been so anxious that this Bank Holiday should be made one of the laws of the land?' Why, a great banker, who very likely could fill all the sacks on a coal wharf with sovereigns if he had a mind to.
    [-84-] "I looked at it in this way. Here's a banker who employs a whole lot of hands, and who any day of the week has only got to say to the governor, 'Sam,' 'Bill,' or whatever his name might be, we won't open the shop to-morrow, as I mean to give the fellow's a day off.' Very well, then. That being so easy, what does he want a Act of Parliament to help him for? You might say because he knows how weak is the resolutions of men, and he wants to be bound fast to his virtuous inclinations. But to this I reply, 'Gammon.' Besides, there were more in it than him. I'll be bound he was only made a cat's-paw of by the swells and aristocrats who bank their money with him. Any man who is not a born fool can see how it was worked. It was brought about, if you recollect, at a time when the working classes were giving signs of waking up to their rights and privileges. Not only were they murmuring among themselves, but were beginning to growl about it loud enough to be heard. There s them precious upper ten thousand, as they call themselves, rolling in the lap of luxury. They toil not, neither do they spin, but their lives are one merry-go-round of enjoyment, while we are kept with our nose to the grindstone, till, in a manner of speaking, there isn't enough left of it to ketch hold of when a fellow's got a cold in his 'ed with a hankercher. It is all work and no play with us,' the working classes were saying among themselves, 'and blessed if we will stand it much longer.' When it came to this, continued the despiser of Bank Holidays, as he touched the side of his own nose with the tip of his forefinger, "the swells and aristocrats thought it was time to slacken the reins a bit. 'They envy us our holidays,' says they; 'let 'em have four of 'em a year, on condition that they lose the time at their own expense, to say nothing about being obliged to put by a few shillings each week out of their hard earnings to make a show of enjoying themselves when the happy day comes.' That's about a right reckoning up of it. I don't say it isn't a deep dodge, or that it isn't a clever one, but a dodge it is, take my word for it. The design, sir, is to give the working man more holidays than he wants, or than his means will permit him to enjoy, so that, in the course of time, he may grow sick of holidays altogether, 'cept them he chooses to make for himself, and kick against 'em, and hold public meetings, and get up petitions to have Bank Holidays done away [-85-] with, as being compulsory and therefore unconstitootional, the same as a lot of 'em at the present time disagree with waxination on the same grounds. You ask for my views, and now you've got 'em. And with a self-satisfied air the red-hot Radical took his pipe out of his pocket and refilled it.
    "But I think you will agree that, judging from what we see around us at the present moment," I ventured to remark, "it will be a considerable time before your dismal prophecy comes true. Everybody here to-day, at all events, appears to be quite happy and contented with their holiday."
    "Of course, they seem so, poor fellows," he replied, with contemptuous pity; "they're in for it, and they've got to make the best of it. The fact is, they make such a precious hooraying about the 'boon,' as they called it, that was conferred on them by Act of Parliament, at the time it was passed, they don't like just yet to acknowledge how much they have been deluded."
    "The wives and children seem to take kindly to it, however," said I.
    "The wives are more to blame than anybody," snarled the holiday-hater, with disgust. "They selfishly encourage their husbands to submit to the tyranny of their rulers. More fools the men for giving way to the women. I don't say that my own missus is as firm on this point as I should like her to be; but she knows the sort of man I am, and she doesn't dare cut up very rough. It was only this morning that she says to me, in a half-hinting sort of manner, 'Phil,' she says, 'over the way are going to Hampton Court, and next door, both ways, have got tickets for Taterman's van, that starts at ten this lovely Whitsun Monday morning for High Beech.' 'Let it start, old woman,' I says, 'and you show 'em that you are above all such tomfoolery, by putting on your oldest gown and whitewashing the back kitchen.' That's what I left her doing when I came out. Enjoying their holiday, indeed!" he exclaimed, derisively, as he directed my attention to a small family advancing up a steep path close at hand, "perhaps you'll tell me that that chap is happy and contented!"
    The individual to whom he alluded was a labouring man in his decent holiday clothes, and he carried a fat little boy astride his shoulders, and who was holding on with both hands to the rim of his hat, round which there was a mourning band. In a [-86-] perambulator were two other children, at which the father was pushing with the hand that was not supporting the flying angel, while his wife toiled along at his side with a pudgy infant in her arms. But withal, his aspect was strikingly different from that of the sour-minded anti-Lubbockite who had directed my attention to him. He was a pleasant-looking fellow, and he paused with a good-humoured grin just in front of us to wipe his perspiring brow. The disbeliever in Bank Holidays nudged me with his elbow as with affected affability he remarked
    "Rather warm work, isn't it, mister ?"
    "There's no denying that it's warm work," replied the other, his grin becoming a genial laugh. "I told you, missus, what a lot of use it was for me to put on a starched collar." And he tenderly deposited his shoulder burden on the grass while he wiped the back of his neck with his pocket-handkerchief.
    "Bless his young heart," he continued, beaming down on the little fat boy, "he's a good ten pounds heavier than he was just before Christmas."
    "You should be a judge of difference if any one should," remarked the holiday-hater, with a mock serious face. "It must be worthwhile making 'em fat and heavy with such a jolly Bank Holiday to look forward to."
    "That's it, mister that s my idea to a T," returned the other, innocently. "So that they're well and hearty, what does it matter to a man that's got his health and strength whether he has to carry or wheel 'em?"
    "Specially when he's got such a lot of 'em as you have," said the impostor at my side, giving me another nudge, to note how cleverly he was bringing out the mean-spirited molly-coddle he was conversing with. "But the more the merrier, eh ?"
    "Well, I wouldn't go as far as that, p'r'aps, but " - and here a cloud crossed his happy face, and he touched the black band that encircled his hat - ''we should be merrier if there was one more of us here, shouldn't we, Jenny?"  His wife sadly shook her head and kissed the baby she carried in her arms. " Well, after all, we are as many as we were last outing, old girl, and that's a comfort, and a big 'un," said the husband, gratefully. "Ah we didn't have the chance of enjoying last Bank Holiday like we have this one."
    "P'r'aps you didn't have all your little family with you?"[-87-] said the holiday-hater, scarcely able to command a steady countenance.
    "You've just hit it, mister," returned the rough fellow, quite unconscious that the other was poking fun at him ; "we only had one of 'em with us." And his wife's face being for the moment turned aside, he jerked his thumb towards the black band, so that we might understand which one it was he alluded.
    "We couldn't manage any more of them that time, both on the score of looking after and the expense as well. And she was a big gal to carry - going on for seven years old - and quite as much as I could attend to. All the winter she 'ad been ailing and pining, though she was not what you may call bed-rid. So me and the missus made up our minds that she should have Easter Bank Holiday all to herself. I mean that all the bit of earnings that had been put by to meet it should go towards doing the poor little thing good, if it was possible. So we wraps her up warm and I goes off with her all by myself, to give her the benefit of eight hours at the seaside at Brighton. She was that weak that I had to nurse her all the while in the train, and to carry her in my arms nearly all the blessed day through."
    "You'd had almost enough of it, then, by the time you reached home," remarked the Bank Holiday infidel. "You couldn't have felt much inclined for work next day."
    "I give you my word, mate," replied the good fellow, readily', "that I never felt better able to work, and I'm a hammerman by trade, and a man wants both his arms for that work. But I was so jolly light-hearted that I hardly felt the load of her at all. It seemed to do her such a power of good, you'd have thought that one of them miracles we read about in the Bible had happened to her. The sea-air seemed to put new life in her, and when at last she got tired and couldn't sit up any longer and went to sleep in my arms, I could think of nothing but what a lucky thing it was I had brought her there, and how thankful her mother would be when she saw the change in her. But it wasn't to be. It chirped her up for a time, but she didn't last much longer. All right, mother," continued the honest hammerman, in response to a look from his wife, "I didn't mean to make you low-spirited. We came out to enjoy ourselves to-[-88-]day, didn't we, old girl? and please goodness we mean to do it." And so saying, he shouldered the fat boy again (who took hold of his whiskers this time instead of his hat-rim), and cheerily wishing us good day, pushed up with a will at the perambulator.
    The holiday-hater looked after the little party with his lips screwed up in scornful pity. "There s a Bank Holiday specimen for you," he remarked sneeringly; "what do you think of him?"
    "I am quite sure," I replied, " that he is entirely in the right, as you are entirely in the wrong, and that he will get much more satisfaction out of his Whitsun Monday than you can hope for or deserve."
    "But I want to know on what principle."
    And as he spoke he extinguished the tobacco in the pipe with the tip of his little finger and placed it in his pocket, and judging from this that he was about to launch into an anti-holiday argument again, I relieved him of my company.

source: James Greenwood, Odd People in Odd Places, 1883