A hot bath, two loads of laundry and use of an indoor toilet today; has made me think about my ancestors. The ease at which the tap turned, the water swirling down the glistening toilet; the full bathtub filled with epsom salt and light. True bliss.
As a Coal Miner’s Grandaughter with deep roots in the cotton mills and coal mines of Lancashire and the Lightermen on the Thames River; appreciation was built in. The profound stories of family history remain in our souls for a lifetime. The ceaseless work ethic and abominable compensation, remain at the root of all future endeavours and shed a light on our desires that is often harsh and unforgiving. From a young age I listened to stories about the rationing and bombing of London; and the very difficult lives of my maternal Grandmother and Aunt working from sunrise to sunset in a noisy cotton mill. The working conditions in the mill were pretty horrific – deafening noise, dust, long hours and very meagre accommodation. George Orwell in “The Road to Wigan Pier”, admonishes the terrible living conditions in great detail, including dirty outdoor toilets sometimes shared any 30 people, unbearably cold homes and a general lack of good food. The rationing stories of my childhood included 6 eggs a week, one pint of milk and white bread. My Grandmother never owned her home and did not have an indoor toilet in 1977. My brother tells me that when they cleared her house in the early 80’s, her stepson was so disgusted by the way the mill had forced people to live, that he pushed furniture down the stairs. It crashed against the wall and took out the banister before heaving itself incoherently upon the front door. “There you go!” said the chesterfield. “Fuck you!” The row of “one up one down” houses could never accommodate a mattress and often had to be lifted in through a window or revise themselves into small twin beds. The only heat was a stove that ate coal and required money; stairways too narrow and the walls in very bad shape. Ida Dyson/Parkin lived to see her 105th birthday however and rarely complained. She gave birth to my mum before her 17th birthday. Times were very tough and eventually Ida’s parents abandoned her completely, likely for being pregnant out of wedlock.
My Grandfather, Jack Dyson, almost died when he broke his neck in the coal mine at age 17. At that time he was one of the first people to receive some sort of compensation; but, the money didn’t last long; and soon he was called to war. My mum rarely saw him after that and then her mum abandoned her at eight years of age. Mum went to live with an aunt. On my 8th birthday my mum said to me, “I cannot imagine leaving you at this age.” That thought was really hard to me to process and stayed with me to this day. It may be the main idea in this essays. We will see.
My Mum’s story is the one that intrigues me the most. She also had the biggest influence on me. Unfortunately, I was not always old enough to reflect upon the deep bitter struggle and I believe that some of the stories actually frightened me. The character Sykes in “Oliver Twist” represented all that was evil in Dickensian Britain. Largely because of this movie, I stayed away from Charles Dickens and felt he represented only the worst of times. Even “The Christmas Carol” seemed to me, a dismal representation of greed and capitalism gone amuck. The childhood focus on cryptic anthologies and bleak representations of child labour were enough to influence me throughout my life.
George Orwell’s, “On the Road to Wigan Pier” explores the poverty of Northern England in a way that provides the reader with a clear view of their lives without exposing them or dehumanizing their existence. Orwell is respectful of their dignity and humility and defends their lives with his scathing reflections of daily life in a Manchester slum. Orwell was welcomed into many homes and caravans likely because of his seriousness towards poverty. He also observed that “the post-war development of cheap luxuries has been a very fortunate thing for our rulers. It is quite likely that fish-and-chips, tinned salmon, chocolate, movies, the radio, strong tea, and the Football Pools have between them averted revolution. But, it was an unconscious process – the quite natural interaction between the manufacturer’s need for a market and the need of half-starved people for cheap palliatives. ” (p. 154)
When he attended King George V’s funeral, he writes, “as the body passed through Long on its way to Westminster, I happened to be caught for an hour or two in the crowd in Trafalgar Square. Puny limbs, sickly faces, under the weeping London sky! Hardly a well-built man, not a fresh complexion anywhere…..Where were the men with chests like barrels and moustaches like the wings of eagles who strode across my childhood’s gaze 30 years ago? Buried, I suppose, in the Flanders mud. If the English physique has declined, this is no doubt partly due to the fact that the Great War carefully selected the million best men in England and slaughtered them.” Furthermore, Orwell’s observation of the food that was sustaining them included the line, “We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.”
“The Road to Wigan Pier” has given me another chance to make sense of my family history. It is a compelling read, that has inspired me to investigate my roots as a mature adult, and better understand the functional role of emotional upheaval in a young child’s mind.