On the Shoulders of the Wretched
Sir Isaac Newton has once said, "If I have seen further [than others] it is by standing upon the shoulders of Giants." It was a remarkable declaration of humility that lesser minds are loath to make and something I wish other great minds had repeated from time to time. In fact, the act of standing on shoulders is a far more common practice than generally recognised and takes place far beyond the noble pursuit of knowledge. And just not standing; being carried on shoulders is hardly uncommon. In the course of human history, for example, successive generations have moved along, not just of their own volition, but in many cases on the shoulders of their forefathers, mainly the wretched. The thought is truly humbling.
Hardly a new insight, this was slammed home to me the other day while reading a book not about a great mind but about a life lived in poverty. I was reading William Woodruff's autobiography, The Road to Nab End, an extraordinary tale of a childhood in a Lancashire textile town in the 1920s and early 1930s
William, or Billy Boy, as his grandmother fondly called him, was born in the carding room of a cotton mill in Blackburn where his mother was a labourer who cleaned cotton. Yes, right in the carding room, not at home, or in a hospital. His father was a weaver in the mill. When his sister Jenny reached the age of thirteen she too joined the workforce of the mill. "No point in her going to school for another year," her father said.
Jenny, then aged eleven, would take the infant Billy to the mill for his mother's milk. Here is Woodruff: "Several times a day she took me from the wooden box that served as my cradle, wrapped me in a blanket and ran through the streets to the mill, where my mother was waiting to suckle me." Then one day, "when Jenny was unwell and could not take me to the mill, mother ignored factory regulation and walked out. She had the misfortune to run headlong into the time-keeper at the gate." Asked where she thought she was going, Billy's mother replied she was running home to feed her starving child. If you go out, you stay out, she was told. She returned to work.
The family lived in a weavers' cottage on a narrow cobbled street. The house was tiny, the kitchen so small there wasn't room for the six members of the family to sit down to dinner. So the children stood for it. Billy shared his bed with his elder brother Dan and the two bothers shared the room with their parents whose bed was so close to theirs that they could touch them. Jenny and her younger sister Brenda slept in the only other, even smaller bedroom. On cold nights the two brothers would keep each other warm in a bed heaped with all their clothing on top of them. Sometimes thick layers of newspaper were used as extra blankets. The beds had straw mattresses that were often infested with bugs. The family toilet was in the backyard: there was no flushing, no seat, no light. In winter it froze; in summer it stank. A visit to it had to be quick and short.
Child Billy was roused at the sound of fierce pre-dawn rattle on the bedroom window from the 'knocker-up' man, waking his father for the day's work. Soon Billy was listening to the footsteps workers in clogs hurrying to the mills on the cobbled street below. (Mill workers rarely wore shoes.) There were over two hundred smoke-belching cotton mills in Blackburn at the end of the war, Woodruff tells us. The stream of workers on Billy's street would soon "become a river, then a flood. The clip-clap of their clogs drowned all other noises."
Normally there was enough food in the house to go round. But times were not normal. In the 1920s the Lancashire textile industry was in steep decline, out-competed by cheap products from the more efficient Indian and Chinese mills. Unemployment rose to devastating levels. There was a time when both of Billy's parents were without a job. The pittance of unemployment insurance benefit ran out in no time and the state dole was pitifully inadequate to feed a family of six. For much of the 1920s the family scraped along the bottom of economic existence. Bridget, who lived alone, was too proud to ask for handouts, and starved herself to death. At the age of six Billy started to run errands for a grocer after school. The grocer paid his parents one shilling and six pence per week, presumably a good chunk of the total family income, from which he received a penny. At age thirteen, he found a job at a grocery store catering for the well to do. He lost the job soon enough. At sixteen he ran away to London in search of work.
In this remarkable autobiography we find Billy taking things in their stride. Woodruff recalls how hard times brought resourcefulness and self-reliance. The book ends with, "No, all things considered, I was lucky to have been born and reared in Lancashire; doubly lucky to have been born poor."
There is wistfulness as well strength of character in that sentence. Yet the book is a saga of misery. There were hundreds of thousands of families like Billy's in the north of England at the time. Even in 'prosperous' times the life of a factory worker was unenviable by modern standards. The Dickensian world of industrial misery was all too real. The decline of traditional industries like textiles vastly increased that misery. In 1931, half the workforce of Blackburn was unemployed. People were dying of starvation. There were hunger marches from Blackburn to London. The ragged marchers came back empty-handed.
Life indeed was nasty, brutish and short. And not just in Lancashire. The scene was replicated with some variation in many parts of England and around the industrial world. Economies continually go through what economists often glibly describe as structural adjustment. Some industries decline, and others take their place, but the process is often long and difficult. Often it has wrenching consequences for those involved in it. The textile workers of Blackburn were a microcosm of the wretchedness that structural adjustment wrought for a vast section of the population in the industrial world. Moreover, these changes were taking place when prosperous times offered the industrial worker not much more than what was needed to keep body and soul together.
The industrial and post-industrial world looks vastly different today. People of Blackburn most of them in any case now live a healthier, longer and fuller life than did Billy's parents. That is at least partly because his parent's generation bore the brunt of change, on top of the bad luck of their having been born into the misery of an early stage of industrialization. The Blackburnians of today are lucky.
But to feel lucky one need not think in terms of the often-cruel process industrialisation alone. In general, members of the present generation are lucky to be living today than if they had been born, say, a century ago. This is true of many areas of the world including countries like mine that are still poor, have only now begun to industrialize, and have a long way to go before a majority of their population is within reach of reasonable affluence. If human history has certain inevitability to it, if things that happened were bound to happen, and if an individual's appearance as a speck on the giant tapestry of human civilisation is a random event, many of my generation should consider themselves lucky to have been born when they were. I certainly would.
Consider this. Not long ago, just about the only way a nation could enrich itself was to conquer another. The land of the vanquished would in all probability be plundered, its resources taken away, a great many of its people would be murdered, many would be taken prisoner, torn from their family, and would almost certainly end their days in slavery in some foreign land. Look only a few centuries into the past, and you will see this happening in many areas of the world, including those which would later boast of having given the world 'civilisation'. Many of the great monuments of ancient civilisation were built by slaves dripping blood and sweat. Many were the ships propelled by oarsmen in chains, promoting power and trade for their masters. I am glad I was not there.
Of course, no generation is a homogeneous lot. Billy talks of the toffs, the well-dressed wealthy, even in Blackburn, and Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian England had a lot of them, alongside the far more numerous not so rich and the even more numerous poor. In my corner of the world, riches exist side by side with grinding poverty. Our Billys are far more numerous. But even here my generation has lived a better life than did my forefathers. I am glad, for example, we did not see the poor peasantry of Bengal forced into cultivation of indigo by the Europeans. I am glad the zamindari system has been abolished. Also, every generation has its own trauma and we have ours. But, all told, we are lucky to be living now rather than in some earlier times.
The romantically inclined will perhaps object. Let them not. It is always tempting to look at the past though rose-tinted glasses. I would instead recommend humility for my generation. Something good might even come out of it greater concern on our part for the next generation and the world it will live in, for example.
Mahfuzur Rahman is a former United Nations economist.
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