Read CHAPTER IV - THE MAN IN THE SLUM of Stand Up‚ Ye Dead, free online book, by Norman Maclean, on ReadCentral.com.

The countrysides have been laid waste, but what of the men and women who were thus driven from the wide, wind-swept spaces to stony streets and airless barracks?  What did it mean of happiness and well-being to them?  Let us try to present the contrast to ourselves.

I

In no sphere is there such an opportunity of happiness as that of work in the open air, when men have learned to love the sights and the sounds of the wide sky.  The pleasantest sight in the world is to watch a ploughman driving straight his long furrow, or resting at the furrow end crooning to his well-groomed team, while the fresh air fans his face and the westering sun casts a mantle of loveliness around him.  He may be a lover of nature, this man.  He may watch the coming of the birds and the first white flashing of the swallows’ wings.  If he does not own the land there is no reason why he should not ’own the landscape.’  At the close of the day he goes home and is met by the welcoming shout of his children, who, strong and sturdy, clamber on his knees.

But it was decreed that he be driven into a slum; and see what has been made of him!  Walk through the East End of Glasgow on a Saturday night and mark the product of the ‘highest civilisation’ the world has ever known.  Out of reeking public-houses men and women reel into the streets.  Degradation and brutality have marked them for their own.  Their diseased bodies witness to their lives of sensuality.  They were children of the fresh air, now 133,000 of them in Glasgow live in one-room houses with the very decencies of life denied them; and 486,000 live in one-room and kitchen houses-a total population of 619,000, in the one city, doomed to live under conditions which render all privacy impossible.  Often a father and mother and three or four children live in a single apartment.  When that single apartment is at the top of the rookery, the pitiful spectacle is seen of little children with bowed or bent legs climbing painfully up the squalid stairs.  The mothers of the race can be seen toiling up weary flights of stairs carrying a heavy basket on one arm and a child in the other.  Once streams of purest water from the hillsides flowed day and night, singing to them, cleansing for them; now it is impossible to keep clean, for in these rookeries the washhouse is only available once every three weeks!  Out of a million of a population, 60 per cent. live under conditions such as these.  The Medical Officer of Health (an office that can be no sinecure in such a city) has declared that there are 10,000 houses in Glasgow absolutely unfit for human habitation, and which it is impossible to make fit.  But a doomed population must go on living in them because there is no other accommodation to be found for them.  In these places the children perish in the first year of life at a rate of 200 per thousand; but in the West End only 50 children die per thousand.  Out of every thousand babies born in those parts of the city in which the poor are massed, 150 at least are destroyed by the social conditions which the highest modern civilisation has created. After a day of nerve-racking toil the freeborn Scotsman comes home to his lair, the one-roomed house which can command the use of a wash-house once in three weeks, to the foulness and the squalor, and what is he to do?  The State has provided.  The whisky-shop is there, at the corner, with its brightness and its allurements and its forgetfulness of woe.  The State says to him, you can escape out of your intolerable surroundings through the door of alcohol.  And he escapes.  There is no other course left for him, and only the Pharisee can blame him.  Thus it comes that the State-regulated alcoholic manufactories of paupers and criminals pass the slum-dwellers through the mill, and they come forth moral refuse.  Children with the faces of old men and women cry to each other the undertones of a babel of profanity.  For weeks they never see the sun, moving under a pall of black smoke.  They rise to toil in the dark, and all day they watch and feed clanking machinery, and they return home in the dark.  The State has provided for them the narcotic of drunkenness.  Vigour dies low in them.  Out of every three one is rejected as physically unfit to bear arms.  When stringency is exercised one out of two is rejected.  In the process of transplantation and disinheritance the people have lost not only the land but their bodies.  For them there has been yielded no profit.  They have lost the world, but they have not gained their souls.

For the greatest of all their losses is this, that they have lost the sense of God.  In the country they could not fall to those depths.  There they were face to face with the Unseen.

    ’Who plants a seed beneath the sod
  And waits to see it push away the clod-
    He trusts in God.’

But in the East Ends of our cities no work of God is ever visible.  And they were told by many wise men that God was superfluous.  Everything could be explained without any God!  There was nothing but sensations!  Ah! who can blame him because he has sunk so low? They took the earth from him; they took the sunlight from him; they took the air from him; they darkened the moon and the stars for him-until at last they took God Himself from him.  And it has all been so cunningly wrought that he is all unconscious that he has been driven out of Paradise.  That is the essence of the grim tragedy.

II

In the countryside it was possible for men and women to live clean and decent lives, and those who are left there continue to do so.  In proof of that it may be cited that the north-west districts of Scotland can still show a birthrate of 34.8.  Were it not for the ‘Celtic Fringe’ and the country places, the birthrate of Scotland would be far lower than it is.  For the country and the hillsides are the land of far vistas and empty spaces, so that the apostle of racial limitation could not there plead that there is no room for more.  And life is natural; children, so far from being an endless burden to their parents, are looked upon as life’s true riches, the helpers and the supporters of their parents.  The crofter’s house may be poor, but it rings with the shouting of children at play, and love spreads its endless feast.  In these places, so unsophisticated and so ‘uncivilised,’ children are not a burden, and, however large the family, there is room in the heart for more.

But far different is it when the family is driven from the countryside into the slum.  There the new civilisation decrees that men and women must no longer live natural lives.  If they have children they must pay the penalty, and the penalty is that landlords refuse to accept them as tenants.  Long, long ago a Child was born in a stable ’because there was no room for them in the inn.’  There was room for tax-gatherers and soldiers and traders, but there was nobody found to make room for a woman in the hour of her direst need.  The Child was shut out.  But that was in a rude age and the door was shut by untutored men.  The most startling of all the facts which leap to light as we consider the social and moral condition of our generation is the fact that after nineteen centuries of Christianity, in the heart of the most ‘perfect’ development of civilisation, the same tragedy is perpetrated-the child is shut out.  There is room for everything but not for innocence.  There is conclusive evidence to prove that the property owner in London has set his face against tenants who happen to be the unhappy parents of little children. Childhood is that which nobody now desires except a few poor people whom the Malthusians have not yet instructed.  ‘A printer told me the other day,’ says Monsignor Brown, ’...he had five children; when he went to an agent the other day, the agent bowed him out and would not listen to him, though he wanted five rooms and was prepared to pay the rent.’ If a family exceeds four the position becomes acute.  ’If a family consist of four or five children,’ declared the Assistant Housing Manager of the London County Council, ’they would have a difficulty in obtaining accommodation. All this is quite natural.  The property owner wants his rent, and he wants it without his property suffering undue dilapidation.  And the rent is more certain when there are not more than two or three children.  He is not a philanthropist; he wants his money, the race must look after itself.  Profits and not children-that is the rule of his life.  In every city it is the same.  The owner of house property will not have children in his houses, even as the London County Council will not have married women as teachers-for they might have children!  This then is what we have done.  We have deprived four-fifths of our population of their birthright in the air and the sunshine and the land, and we have decreed that they must live unnatural lives-otherwise we will allow them no place wherein to live!  We have built up a civilisation in the midst of which childhood is anathema.

III

When we look beneath the surface and ask the reasons why the poor cannot find houses in which they can live with comfort, we discover that it is a matter of finance.  The extortionate prices of building sites render it impossible to build on them any dwelling-houses except tenements.  Here is an example:  ’Unless the land were given you, you could not possibly build cottages,’ says the Secretary of the Guinness Trust.  ’Our new site, which was supposed to be sold to us on cheap terms, cost L11,000 an acre, so that you can see the landrent per tenement will work out at about 2d. a week, and as I say, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners professed to sell to us at a low rate, having regard to our objects.  It is really not a stiff price for the position.’  In this bare statement we touch bedrock.  The Guinness Trust, founded with the philanthropic purpose of providing decent housing for the poor, buys an acre for building purposes from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, who, from their very name, must be interested in the poor, and they get it cheap at L11,000 an acre!  What does it mean this fabulous cost of land in great cities?  A hundred years ago that acre would be bought and sold at its agricultural value of a few score pounds sterling.  Whence, then, this inflated price?  The answer is that the people created that value.  We deprived them of the land of England and drove them to the cities.  In the cities they, by their labour, made the land valuable; and the value which they themselves created we turn against them.  We exiled the people from the soil; and in the cities, where we piled them, we turned the values, which they created, into an instrument for their ultimate destruction.  They have made the land so valuable that cottages can no longer be built on it, and the man with four children searches in vain for a house.  It is a staggering product of a perfect civilisation.  And still more staggering when one realises that the birthrate of these poor people, for whom the Guinness Trust provides some measure of comfort, is 36.95 per thousand, as compared to 17.53 in the west.  The section of the population still willing to carry on the race must pay L11,000 an acre for the sites of their teeming tenements.  Only after that form can civilisation make room for the child.

IV

What guerdon has the State provided for the massed populations who have the very riches they create thus turned into an instrument for their impoverishment?  One looks for that guerdon in vain.  The vast majority of them are consigned to a life of privation from birth to death.  Factories pour heavenward the smoke which lies over our cities as a pall, and in the gloom men and women toil with bloodless faces producing the goods which, elaborate and costly, or cheap and nasty, crowd the markets of all the world.  But ten millions of the toilers go shivering through life ever tottering on the verge of the precipice of want.  Over one and a half millions of them were rated as paupers in the years before the war.  In the old Roman world half the population were slaves, but three-fourths of our population are virtually slaves.  For the man who marries and has children, who is forced into a slum, and is once chained to the chariot of modern machinery, there is no escape.  ‘Man is born free,’ declared Rousseau, ’and is everywhere in chains.’  No chains of slavery were ever more degrading than those forged in our day.  Systems of indoor sweating found for their antidote the pauper system of outdoor relief.  England, that struck the shackles off the African slaves, forged shackles for her own children.  The conditions of the modern slaves are in a sense worse than that of the Roman serf.  For the Roman slaves often laboured in noble toil, building temples which have defied the corroding power of time and which still inspire the heart with admiration and awe.  But these slaves of to-day build nothing that endures.  The cities of their labour might perish to-morrow, but in their perishing no beauty would disappear from the earth.  The very efforts which the toilers have made to improve their state have been movements of blindness and folly.  They have organised far-reaching systems by which they seek through the limitation of output to improve their condition.  The gate through which they press towards deliverance is the gate of dishonesty.  That is the proof of the servitude not of body only, but of mind and spirit, to which they have been brought.  ’I do not hesitate to express the opinion,’ wrote Huxley in 1890, that if there is no hope of a large improvement in the condition of the greater part of the human family; if it is true that the increase of knowledge, the winning of a greater dominion over nature which is its consequence, and the wealth which follows upon that dominion, are to make no difference in the extent and the intensity of want with its concomitant physical and moral degradation amongst the masses of the people, I should hail the advent of some kindly comet which would sweep the whole thing away as a desirable consummation.’  Since then, wealth has enormously increased, science has triumphed more and more over nature, but the increase of the one and the triumph of the other have only produced an increase of physical and moral degradation on the part of masses of the people.  Whoever ponders the two Reports in which for the first time that degeneration is fearlessly and mercilessly exposed, cannot any longer be blind to that.  It is not, however, by means of a ‘kindly comet’ that the arrest comes.  For God’s judgments shut not the door against hope.

V

In the days of old a prophet surveying the decay of Israel used a phrase which grips the heart:  ’They build up Zion with blood, and Jerusalem with iniquity,’ and so has visualised our pitiful state also.  It is not, however, quite the same.  For Zion was the temple, and stood for the hunger of the soul.  We no longer build any temples.  We build factories and playhouses and endless miles of grey and colourless streets.  To-day the prophet would vary the words, ’They build up theatres and cinemas with blood and London with iniquity.’  That is near the truth.  London has been built up by that iniquity which has made the home-counties of England waste; and the life-blood of islands and fair valleys and hill-sheltered glens has been drained that Glasgow might grow and its slums be enlarged.  The call to repentance which comes to our ears is a call summoning us to right the wrong wrought by blinded politicians, to restore again to the people the decencies of life and the possibilities of happiness.  The call to national repentance is not a call to emotion but a call to action.  Of old prophets summoned a race fast hurrying to decay to return to God.  The way of return was the way of action.  They were exhorted to people the waste places, to curb licentiousness, and to walk in the path of righteousness.  And to-day the call of national repentance is the same. It is the call to the realisation of an ideal of life in which masses of the people will not be damned from birth by a social organism in whose grip they are powerless.  All in vain does a mission, appealing to the soul, feeble of help, wage conflict in a slum with the forces of the State, wielded through a dozen public-houses, that depress and enslave.  As things now are there can be no escape and no salvation for the man in the slum.