Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - For Love O' Liquor

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The most incorrigible drunkard in London - I find the patriarchal tippler in a Bermondsey rag warehouse - The master ragman gives me a friendly hint - The incorrigible's story - At one time a flourishing fish-stall keeper with plenty of money - The "dodge" on which his success was founded -  "Come and see Drunken Dave give his fish away" - The dodge played out - He turns teetotal - A failure - Returns to the old device - Narrow escape of a "bowl out "- Drowned in drink beyond redemption.

I HAD noticed in the police reports the case of an unfortunate wretch, who was spoken of by the magistrate as the most incorrigible drunkard that ever was brought before him. According to a statement made by the gaoler of the court, the accused, who was described as a miserable-looking creature, was over seventy years of age, and had been convicted of being drunk and incapable at least a hundred times in that particular district alone, and how many times in other districts he could not say.  The magistrate, remarking that it was a wonder he had not drunk himself to death long since, fined the man ten shillings, with the alternative of seven days' imprisonment.
    Pitying the patriarchal tippler on account of his extreme age, a gentleman in court paid the fine, and he was set free. It seemed to me, when I read the case, that an individual capable of withstanding the destructive power of strong waters until he arrived at the ripe age of threescore years and ten, might, if he were disposed to relate his experiences, or the most interesting of them, be a person on whom an hour's "interviewing£ would not be altogether wasted.
    Seeking him out, I found him lodging in a loft of a rag-sorting warehouse near Bermondsey, the terms of his tenancy being that he should give two days' work a week at sorting for the use of the loft as a bed-chamber, with the privilege of the pick of the rags for a bed. For his services, such as they were, during the remainder of the week, he received a shilling a day, with perquisites in shape of all the brass buttons attached to the rags that passed through his hands. The proprietor of the rag-shed, and who was in but a small way of business, seemed a good- natured kind of man, and he had a bit of advice to give me as [-159-] we paused for a moment at the foot of the ladder that led up to the chamber of his shockingly dissipated old lodger.
    "Excuse me, sir," said he, "but if your intentions are charitable towards him, though only to the extent of a bob, or perhaps only a tanner, give it to me, and I'll eke it out in grub for him. Give it to him and he'll melt it into gin, much or little, five minutes after your back is turned."
    "Is gin his particular weakness?" I asked.
    "Take my word for it, sir; he'd sell hisself, body and bones, for a good skinful of it, and chuck his old rags in to clench the bargain."
    After this I was not surprised to find the subject of our conversation as deplorable-looking an object as the police account had alleged him to be. An emaciated, gaunt old fellow, with grizzled grey hair and beard, and of that shrunken and bloodless complexion that denotes the inveterate gin-drinker. His figure had an appropriate setting. He was dressed in rags, he was seated on rags, he was sorting rags in a great sieve, like that used for "screening" gravel. As I entered the loft he was in the act of sipping something out of a black and battered old pewter milk-jug, and I knew when I advanced a step or two towards him that the vessel contained gin. I explained to him briefly what it was that had induced me to conic and see him, and that I should be glad if he would give me some account of himself. In blissful hope of a replenishing of the pewter milk-jug, he consented with cheerful alacrity. Was it true that he had been charged a hundred times with drunkenness? Very likely. They ought to know best. He should have thought that a couple of hundred times was nigher the mark, if I asked him. Was he always addicted to drink? I asked him. The question led to his relating his story straight off.
    "No, I was not always addicted to it," he replied. "You d hardly believe it, perhaps, but there was a time when, instead of letting drunkenness master me, I was its master in a manner of speaking. I used to make believe to be fond of the bottle, while all the time I was only using it as a means of pushing my business. You don't see how that is possible ? Well, you'll understand how it was when I explain. I used to keep a large fish-stall in Brill Row, Somers Town. It was only a street stall, but there wasn't a tradesman in the neighbourhood who took [-160-] more money than I did, and the secret of it was my shamming drunk. Brill Row at that time of day was a very low sort of place, swarming with poor people, and I used to do a roaring trade among 'em.
    "It was a roaring trade, and no mistake. There was hardly one evening of the whole week that I didn't get such a mob round my stall that it was as much as a policeman could do to keep the pavement from being blocked up, and there was I, with perhaps fifteen or twenty pounds' worth of fish to get rid off, seemingly so tipsy that I could hardly stand upright, and yet I hadn't tasted anything stronger than tea or coffee since I was up at four o'clock in the morning to pick up cheap the sort of stuff that suited me at Billingsgate.
    "It was all a dodge, and I'll tell you what put it into my head. When I was a young fellow I used to go lightering on the Thames, and being out in all seasons, my face got that weatherbeaten and high-coloured, just as though I d been drinking, and the least excitement made it worse - especially my nose, which used to go as purple as a beetroot. When I gave up the barge work I tried to pick up a living odd jobbing at the fish market; but my face was my enemy. Being a stranger there, the salesmen, of course, didn't know me, but one look at me was enough for them, and they dl tell me that there were plenty of sober men about, and that they couldn't trust a 'lushington.'
    "And so a spiteful sort of feeling came over me against everybody and against my face as well, and it was just as if I said to my red nose when I saw it reflected in the glass, 'all right, my boy; you re had your own way to suit your own turn, now you shall have it to suit mine.' So I set up a little fish stall at the Brill, not having much stock-money at first, and, as I tell you, made it part of my plan to sham drunk. Evening was the time. I used to wear a battered old hat, and button my weskit crooked, and slew the bow of my neckhandkersher under my ear, and then I'd go in for kicking up all the jolly row I could lay my tongue to - hollering and singing and going on in that reckless way as though I didn't know and didn't care what I was a-doin' of.
    "But I did, though. I got the mob about my stall, and that was all I wanted. 'Come and see Drunken Dave give his fish away,' was a common saying among 'em, and buying the coarse [-161-] sort at a low price, and being able to sell such a lot of it, they got it a lot cheaper than they could have bought it elsewhere but there was precious little disposed of that didn't bring me a good profit, I can tell you. I used to have a black bottle in a basket under the stall. Cold tea it was, but they thought it was rum; and if the fish didn't go off as quick as I wanted it to, and it was growing late, I'd take a pull or two at the bottle, and get that intoxicated and reckless, bless you, it would have done you good to have seen how good-naturedly they grabbed at what was offered them, thinking they got fish at about half what it had cost me. Sometimes there'd be a virtuous party standing in the mob, and he'd remark, 'What a shame to rob the man when he doesn't know what he s doing of. It's enough to ruin the poor fellow giving his goods away in this manner.' And then the mob, to excuse their greediness, would say, 'Don't you be afraid. He's not so drunk but he knows what he s about.'
    And they were nearer the mark than they supposed; and so they would have thought had they seen me when I got home with my empty boards sitting down to a nice quiet bit of supper with my wife, and afterwards enjoying a pipe and just one glass of grog while we counted up the money and planned for tomorrow. Did my wife know the sort of game I was carrying on? Course she did. That was part of the joke of it. There was a teetotal hall just close by, and the leaders of it used to be always holding me up to them that went to the lectures as an example and a warning against intemperance. They used to wait on the missus in private (they tried it once or twice with me till they found what an incorrigible wagabone I was), and begged of her to use her influence with me to get me to go, though only for once, to their hall, so that I might have a chance of being converted and saved from that ruin my intemperate habits was rapidly bringing on me. He, he! I can't help laughing when I think of it," and a twinkle came into his fishy eyes as he moistened his dry lips with a sip of gin ere he proceeded. "They used to try all they knew to get round the missus, and talked such a lot about the helping hand they were ready to give me if they could but induce me to reform my sinful ways, that," and here the twinkle came again into the shameless old rascal's eyes, "I began to think that p'r'aps if I did what they wished me to, something might be made out of it."
    [-162-] "But," I remarked, "how could you reform when you were already a sober man?"
    "No, but I could pretend to," he replied with a grin. "I turned it over in my mind, and I argued in this way: 'I've been shamming drunk going on for three years now, and I have to go to such lengths to keep the game alive that if I don't look out I shall be had up as a nuisance. It would be a change and a novelty to turn round all of a sudden on to the opposite tack, and be a spectable teetotal stall-keeper. It don't matter if it doesn't answer, which I don't expect it will. If it don't, I can at any time relapse into my old drunken habits, and it will be very much to the delight of my old customers that believed in them.' So I says to the missus, 'Look here, old lady: next time they come badgering you about me, you up and say that you didn't like to expose my affairs before, but since they must know the truth, it is because things are going so bad with me that I keep on drinking deeper and deeper to drownd my sorrows, and that from certain hints I've dropped when you've been talking to me serious, you have every reason to believe that if I was set fair and straight on my legs again, my mind would be made easy, and I d be only too happy to take the pledge as a safeguard against my sliding back again.'
    "Well, sir, she told 'em, and a little while afterwards they made an appointment to meet me, and asked me to be frank and candid with 'em, and tell em how much money I owed, and I told em that eighty pounds would cover it, and leave me a free man, with a five-pound note to go to market with. 'Well,' says they, 'supposing we should find you the money, would you be willing to take the pledge, and keep it?' 'I should think it my duty so to do,' I said. 'And would you be willing to speak in public from the platform at our hall of your conversion?' I promised this too. And the very next morning I had done so they gave me the money to pay my debts with. What do you think of that, sir?"
    "Well, since you ask me the question," I replied, "I can only say that it was a most dishonest transaction, and that you did not deserve to prosper in business afterwards."
    "You think it was carrying artfulness too far," he remarked gravely, and after his shaky hand had conveyed to his mouth another taste of gin. "You think that if a judgment had fell [-163-] on me for imposing on them, whose only aim was to do me good, it served me right?"
    "That is certainly my opinion," I replied.
    "Well, I can't say that it is exactly my opinion," he responded ruefully; "but so it was, anyhow. A judgment did fall on me, sir, and started me downhill to where you find me now landed. I went in thick for teetotalism. I had been so long used to pretending to be drunk that it came easy as child's play to act the other part, and for a few months I gave every satisfaction. To them, I mean - not to myself.
    "It was just as I expected it would be as regards the business. When they heard that I had become a reformed character, and might be seen at my stall every evening in a new hat and a clean shirt, and with a white choker on, they came in greater numbers to see me, but it wasn't to buy fish. I offered it to them as cheap as ever - for less sometimes than it cost me - but now I was sober they wouldn't give credit to half as many lies as I used to tell them when they thought I was drunk. I kept on losing money at such a rate that at the end of the three months I was more than half of that eighty pounds they had given me out of pocket.
    "Then I thought it was time to turn round again. It was a startler for the Brill, I can tell you, when one Saturday evening I came there with a double stock of fish on the stall, and with the same old battered hat on, and singing a bit of a comic song I had picked up about a teetotaler who had died, and whose stomach when they opened him was found full of icicles and snowballs. Course you understand I was quite sober, not having had the least drop of anything to drink; but the people didn't dream of anything of the sort, and said they, 'Here's Davy drunker than ever, and you can have his fish for anything you like to bid for it!' I had sold out every bit of it before ten o'clock, but when I got home I found that somebody had stole the black bottle I drank the cold tea out of, and which the people thought was rum.
    "I was sure that somebody had stole it, because there was a hole slit in the side of the rush basket I kept it in, and the worst of it was, I well recollect, that there was a drop of tea left in it. I could only hope that the thief who had taken it, thinking it contained rum, would find his mistake, and say nothing about [-164-] it. No such luck. I heard about it next morning, which was Sunday, soon as ever I went out to smoke my pipe. It was through a friend I heard about it, though it was meant that it should be kept dark till Monday evening, when I was to be exposed and served out. There was a lot of the rough sort savage against me, I heard, for swindling them into the belief that I was drunk when all the while I was keeping teetotal. It was a pretty sort of mess, and there was only one way out of it. Of course I had mortally offended my temperance friends, and it seemed that if I didn't look out sharp, between the two stools I should come to the ground. So come Monday evening I was there with my stall as usual, and going on as bad as ever, and the crowd soon came round me. I could see there was something going on among 'em, but I took no notice, and presently I took out my bottle, and was helping myself to a drink, when one of 'em snatches it out of my hand.
    "'D' ye want to know what it is this cheating humbug gets drunk on?' he cries out; 'it's cold tea. Have a taste of it,' he says, 'anybody who don't believe me.'
    "And he himself set the example by taking a pull at the black bottle. He as nigh choked hisself as possible. There was a pint of overproof real Jamaky in the bottle, and he swallowed about a quartern of it.
    "'Why, dash it,' he says, when he'd got his breath, 'it is rum arter all!'
    "'Course it is,' says I, quite innocent; 'what on earth did you think it was?' So I need not tell you, that being the ringleader of those who had planned to bowl me out, the laugh was against him, and my danger was got over.
    "My danger for the time being, I mean,' he continued, after a dismal pause, during which he pensively contemplated the interior of the now empty gin-measure, 'but my downfall dated from that very evening. I had, in a manner of speaking, drove myself into a corner, and there was no escape for me. Nothing would do but I must 'show earnest' by going to the public house when I had sold out; and for the first time in my life I was carried home too drunk to know when or how. It was all over with me, sir, after that. P'r'aps, as you say, it was a judgment on me for taking in the teetotalers. I seemed to lose all my power of shamming, to have lost the knack of it somehow, [-165-] and to keep up the old game I seemed to be drove like to take to drinking in reality. I seemed to do as much business as ever, and for a time it seemed all right.
    "But I soon found the difference between the sham and the real. In less than a year I had lost all my capital and all my good business, and was sold up and done for. It was no use struggling against it. The love o' liquor had got that tight hold of me that iron chains would have been easier to break from. I've give up trying to break away from it this many a year, ever since my wife died, and she could never break away from it when she once got tackled fast to it. I wouldn't do so now if I could, so I won't tell you any lies about it. My drop of gin - I never drink anything else - is the only comfort left to me in this blessed world. It will never kill me, no fear. It's wittles and drink to me, and, give me enough of it, it is blankets and bedclothes as well." And he chuckled at the pleasant conceit. "it's good to me, and I'm good to it. I stick to my work for the sake of it, and I save up for it, so that I now and then enjoy myself properly."
    "And fall into the hands of the police," I remarked, "and be sent to prison."
    The shocking old inebriate shrugged his ragged shoulders.
    "I'll suppose there's no roses without thorns for me any more than for any one else," said he; and in this philosophical state of mind I was about to leave him, when he caught up the battered milk-jug, and held it towards me as beseechingly as a beggar holds out his cap. I had better have given his master, the rag-sorter, that additional sixpence, no doubt but it could not have made much difference in the end.