In the last couple of weeks, I have been stuck in 1912 – or, less specifically, in the years leading up to the First World War, the period in which the twentieth century truly began.
A hundred or so years ago, Bethnal Green was one of London’s poorest districts. It had been the victim of a downturn in trade – particularly silk-weaving, which had been prevalent up until the beginning of the 19th century – and being carved up by the destructive force of the railways. Where once there had stood country cottages and market gardens, now there were overcrowded slums and violent crime (Jack the Ripper operated from around here in 1888), and both Engels and Mayhew wrote about the desperate poverty there (the latter describing “pigs and cows in back yards, noxious trades like boiling tripe, melting tallow, or preparing cat's meat, and slaughter houses, dustheaps, and lakes of putrefying night soil”). Such was the moral outcry that Bethnal Green became the test site for the world’s first Council housing, the Boundary Road estate, though only a tiny handful of the evicted slum-dwellers got the chance to move there.
This is the background for Alexander Baron’s novel King Dido, published in 1969 and entirely out of kilter with the contemporary literary fashions. Baron’s traditional, kitchen-sink style belies his disgust at the conditions in which people had to live. The main character, Dido Peach, is the son of a violent, bullying father and a devout mother who has given up on real life and retreated to a world of fantasies. The family earns a meagre by boiling rags and selling them on, until Dido takes on the Murchisons, a family from Brick Lane who have colonised the neighbourhood by terrorising and extorting money from the local shopkeepers. Dido takes on the mantle of protector, taking protection money and fending off the Murchisons’ retaliations. He marries, has a child (conceived during a rape) and, via a tissue of lies and self-deception, achieves the respectability he craves, until the Police intervene and reduce him, once again, to poverty and humiliation.
Baron never portrays Peach as a hero and yet, despite his crimes, we come to occupy his shoes and see how the desolate hand he has been dealt might make him act as he does. He and his wife, in their different ways, look down on the people around them, and yet however much they aspire to something better, something which they feel they deserve, neither quite manages it and Dido is left to die in the only place he knows.
All this is grim enough, but it is the final chapter in which Baron reveals his revulsion. It is a short, curt, angry chapter, in which he lists the fates of the main characters, including Dido’s teenage brothers:
Chas went to France with the Expeditionary Force and was blown to pieces within a month. Shonny joined up under age and before he was eighteen he was killed at Ypres, his apple cheeks worm-eaten.
Mrs Peach was said by the women in the shops to be mental, with her wandering eyes and puzzled, private mutterings; and Ada took her away. Ada never wished to see or hear of her brother again and Mrs Peach never again saw her son.
One suspects that many members of the bourgeois classes felt about the First World War as Inspector Merry does: that it wiped out the proletariat in numbers that sheer poverty could only dream of. “He crossed the road and surveyed the street as he strolled. It was quieter these days. The war, of course, had taken the men away. In fact the war in his view had done a bit of good down here. The roughs had turned out to be a patriotic lot, all rushing to join up at the start of it; and by now most of them were heaps of rags on the plains of France.”
Peter Watts at the Great Wen does an excellent job of excavating the streets where King Dido is set here and here.
Percy Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists were at least as furious at the barbarism of capitalism, colonialism and war in the 1910s. Owen Hatherley has written about the Vorticists on his blog, and more fully in his Militant Modernism book. And my wife has dredged her limitless expertise on all things cinematic and graphic novel to reveal, rather wonderfully, that the Vorticists were more influential than you think.
Meanwhile, here are my favourite pieces from the current Tate exhibition:
David Bomberg, Vision of Ezekiel
Jacob Epstein, Female figure
Jacob Epstein, Female figure
Percy Wyndham Lewis, The crowd
Edward Wadsworth, Newcastle (in lieu of Cleckheaton)
Henri Gaudier Brzeska, Ornement torpille
Henri Gaudier Brzeska, Fish
Dorothy Shakespear, Composition in blue and black
Dorothy Shakespear, Untitled