:: Article

The Eventual Fate of Dicky Perrot

By John Houghton.

In our age of instant and universal criticism, when anyone with the right gadgetry can tweet a review of a film halfway through watching it, discussing a relatively obscure book about Victorian slum life which was first published in 1896 might seem a little behind the curve.

Yet Arthur Morrison’s The Child of the Jago is worth exposure and debate today. Not just for its portrayal of nineteenth century poverty, but because it exposes how little has changed since then in the way poverty is portrayed and explained in popular discourse.

The novel was Morrison’s attempt to confront Britain’s prosperous but insecure middle classes with the bleak and sordid reality of life in the Jago, a thinly disguised representation of the Old Nichol Street rookery in Bethnal Green. It follows the life and (here is a dilemma – it’s okay to publish a film spoiler about year after its release, but the convention on late Victorian novels is not so well established, so let’s call it the) eventual fate of Dicky Perrot.

Dicky is a slum ‘ratlet’, offspring of parents who are violent and uncaring though respectable by the prevailing standards of the Jago, who scraps and cadges his way from childhood to adolescence amid the disease and squalor of the slum.

The experience of reading the book today, in the papyrically fragile pages of the 1946 Penguin edition, is to be transported back to a dead age, and yet be struck by how pitifully little our collective ability to describe and discuss life in poor places has moved on from the assumptions and prejudices of Morrison’s day.

Like many fact-based but fictionalised accounts of Victorian poverty, there is a dual sentimentality at work in The Child of the Jago. Morrison’s portrayal of his central characters is essentially sympathetic. Young Dicky learns very quickly that the only way to survive is to “spare nobody and stop at nothing”. Yet he is constantly troubled by the harm his thieving causes others, as symbolised by the Ropers’ stolen clock, which is given an almost Freudian resonance. His attempt to escape the Jago with a legit job, in which he takes great pride, is thwarted not by any personal defect but by the seemingly endless hunger of the slum to drag its children back into its maw.

In other passages, Morrison’s descriptions of drunken courtyard brawls, promiscuous family arrangements and pitched mob battles serve a more salacious purpose. The characters who are not the focus of the author’s pity are much more venal than the just-about-salvageable Perrots. As Orwell put it in his essay on Charles Dickens, the heroes are saved, but the author “delights in describing scenes in which the “dregs” of the population behave with atrocious bestiality” and the general description of slum life gives “the impression of whole submerged populations whom he regards as being beyond the pale”.

Through this second descriptive method, which plays on a very different emotional register, Morrison like Dickens give his readers a vicarious thrill and allows them to sidestep any moral responsibility. If only these people would stop stabbing and fucking each other, then we could help them.

The Child of the Jago was criticised for its alleged sensationalism at the time. Morrison was acutely sensitive to the charge and argued, in his preface to the third edition, that he had actually underplayed the more sordid aspects of East End slum life.

Indeed, very early in the novel, Morrison seems to anticipate the critique and satirises the attitude to poverty held by the visiting missionaries to the Jago. They “had been convinced, by what they had been told, by what they had read in charity appeals… that the whole of the East End was a wilderness of slums: slums packed with starving human organisms without minds and without morals, preying on each other alive”.

The Child of the Jago is a deliberately distressing read, but the greater misery is the realisation that the language of “human organisms without minds and without morals” and the attitude to poverty which is reflects is still with us today.

Too many descriptions of life in poor neighbourhoods serve the same function of vicarious titillation and sanctimonious outrage. The terms have changed. Instead of the ‘residuum’, we now have the ‘underclass’. Instead of ‘craftsmen’ with coshes, we have hoodies with knives. The prejudices have likewise been smoothed. No modern author would recreate Ikey Solomons, the Fagin-like and heavily accented Jewish handler in stolen goods. But the underlying discourse, the parameters that define how as a society we think and talk about poor people living in poor places, has barely altered.

Popular press coverage of high-profile cases like the murder of Damilola Taylor, the pretend kidnapping of Shannon Matthews and the sequence of teenage stabbings in London could have been written by any of Morrison’s missionaries. Inevitably, there is pity for the individual victim. But any sense of collective guilt or urge to explain what happened is exculpated by the conviction that the inhabitants of modern Jagoes are “human organisms without minds and without morals, preying on each other alive”

The Daily Mail‘s portrayal of Karen Matthews – “Seven children, six fathers (and a ring from Argos): Lazy, sex-mad Karen Matthews symbolises broken Britain” — was unpleasant but not unpredictable. More disturbing was its determination to make her the representative of everyone living in Dewsbury and places like it — “Neighbours thought of her as ‘one of us’. It is perhaps a reflection of what politicians call our broken society that her personal history of successive pregnancies by a series of men was regarded as normal.”

Before getting too complacent, it’s worth noting that this attitude isn’t confined to the populist right. Writers and activists who put themselves in the progressive camp propagate the same deterministic propaganda, for different reasons, but with no less damaging results.

Bernard Hare’s Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew, with the revealing sub-title A shocking STORY of HELL-BOUND CHILDREN – and one UNLIKELY SAVIOUR (original emphases), is similar to The Child of the Jago. It tells the real-life story of one boy’s attempt, with the aid of the author, to navigate the chaotic and criminal world into which he has been born. Sadly, what could have been an important social document is wrecked by Hare’s uncritical use of the loaded terms like the ‘underclass’, and his portrayal of Urban’s neighbourhood as a machine churning out bastard sociopaths. In another even starker call-back to the missionary mindset, Nick Davies compared his role in researching Dark Heart :The Shocking Truth about Hidden Britain with that of the “Victorian explorer penetrating a distant jungle”.

None of this would matter if, as the cliché goes, today’s newspapers were tomorrow’s chip paper, and if the pages of bad books were pulped and forgotten. Sadly, that isn’t the case, at least when it comes to the issue of poverty. A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Poverty in the media: being seen and getting heard, looked at how the representation of poverty in traditional media shaped the wider public understanding of the problem. It showed how the “tendency for the media to focus on extreme, sensational stories” in place of serious and balanced investigation helps to create at best “a limited understanding of what it means to be poor” and at worst a finger-pointing blame culture.

In another depressing echo of Morrison’s missionaries, the report described how this approach fuels the “strong tendency to marginalise and label people on low incomes as the ‘other’: ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. An earlier report for Rowntree by a team at Glasgow Caledonian University, who surveyed media reports of poverty in a randomly selected week in 2007, also concluded that “coverage tended to focus on extreme cases, highlighting the inherent ‘failings’ of undeserving people”.

The language, and the mood it reflects, may change in the new economic climate. Hardship and unemployment, and the resultant social impacts in terms of marriage breakdown and depression, are a much greater threat for many people than at any time in the past fifteen years. We may become more empathetic, less inclined to condemn and more willing to understand, if more of ‘us’ are at risk of ending up like ‘them’.

An equally likely outcome is that the tenor of debate becomes still harsher and more judgemental. We face inevitable conflicts over who should benefit most from evermore tightly constrained public spending, in which the claims of the ‘deserving’ versus the ‘undeserving’ poor will be constantly pitted against each other, with all the unspoken assumptions that are summoned by such a pernicious and divisive debate.

Looking ahead, we need more than ever a sensible and well-informed discussion about poverty. Yet we seem indelibly ill-equipped to engage in one. We can’t understand, even less tackle, the problem of poverty as long as we resort to the tabloid reflex of blaming the poor for visiting the latest exaggerated degradation upon themselves.

The Child of the Jago stands today for the same reason it was hailed in 1896; as an attempt to confront the comfortable with the reality of life for the miserable. That it still matters is as much a tribute to Morrison’s own skills as an author as it is a condemnation of our collective failing to hear his message.

John Houghton
is a writer and adviser on neighbourhoods, cities and social exclusion and is the author with Prof. Anne Power of Jigsaw Cities.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 21st, 2009.