Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Problem of Evil


One of the strangest publications I've come across recently is a 1939 pamphlet called 'Tom, Dick and Harry', produced by the Mansfield House University Settlement - not a name I was familiar with.

A quick search a Google produced this result:

"The Mansfield House University Settlement was founded in 1889 and was intended to give students of Mansfield College Oxford first hand experience of living and working with working-class people. The Settlement wanted to bring ‘culture’ to the people of the East End, and to provide people with opportunities for leisure, recreation and self-improvement. (The idea was partly to encourage people to take up respectable pursuits, rather than spend all their time and money in the public house.)"

So far so good: a group of well-intentioned Oxford undergraduates helping the poor.

As for the pamphlet, its main purpose seemed to be to raise money for the boys clubs that the Settlement had established in the East End. Once again, a laudible cause.

But when I saw the subtitle 'A Calendar of Good and Evil', my alarm bells started to ring. For example, the young man below may be a bit of a ruffian, but is evil really the right word?

Apparently this is what he should be doing:

Quite right too. A bracing 12-mile ride to find the nearest stretch of countryside will do this young man a world of good. Away from the temptations of the city, he will discover new pleasures: medieval churches, brass rubbing, butterfly collecting and bird spotting.

The whole pamphlet consists of pairs of contrasting photographs: one showing a youth being 'good' at a boys' club; the other depicting 'evil' in the streets:

These two tearaways are behaving like savages, not subjects of His Majesty King George VI. The Marquess of Queensbury would be turning in his grave.

Luckily, the Boys' Club provides Cockney lads with a more constructive outlet for their innate cunning and pent-up aggression:

"This is good, and I say, isn't that WH Auden in the background? Apparently nobody turned up to the poetry class. Philistines!"

In addition to promoting physical health, the Mansfield House Settlement was also concerned about the mental and spiritual well-being of their boys - a young man should not be filling his head with lurid tales of murder and adultery (at least he's reading a newspaper!):

Instead, he should be in the library, brushing up his Latin and memorising Ozymandias for the Christmas concert:

But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Supposing our lads become susceptible to the lure of political extremism:

"We have happily no need in this country to beat the big drum; nor to regiment youth into a hectic nationalism; the right spirit is there and only needs to be fostered to grow unconsciously and naturally."

Given that the year is 1939 and this is the East End of London, where Blackshirts and Communists had fought fierce battles in the streets, the words of this pamphlet are rather pointed.

As for the 'right spirit' that needs to be fostered, this photo is given as an illustration:

Here, our young wastrels are enjoying a four-part arrangement of 'Linden Lea', with the inspiring figure of Lord Nelson in the background. No nationalism here - that's too foreign.

But these boys cannot exist purely on a diet of Shelley, Vaughan Williams and vigorous exercise. During the interludes between world wars, they need to be gainfully employed:

The alternative, as 'Tom, Dick and Harry' subtly points out, is this:

"Not so fast now, you young good-for-nothing!"
But if one of the members of the Boys' Club does revert to his dissolute ways of old, he can be certain that his former partners in crime will hunt him down like a dog, until he is bought to justice:

I wonder what happened to the boys' clubs fundraising drive? Was it quickly eclipsed by the advent of war, or did the Mansfield House University Settlement come into its own during the Blitz? It has been difficult to find out, although this website gives a brief history of the charity up to the year 2000.

From a modern perspective, the 'Tom, Dick and Harry' pamphlet seems absurd. We shy away from using the word evil these days and I think that there are times when we shouldn't be afraid to use it, but if we apply it to feckless teenage boys, then what word do we have left for people like Ratko Mladic?

As for the idea of privileged university graduates trying to bring 'culture' to the East End, it might seem ridiculous - who would dare to do that today? But if the alternative is doing nothing, condemning people to live their whole lives without having a choice, I'd rather have some naive, well-intentioned undergraduate patronise me with high art and adult education classes.

My grandfather was a Cockney and fought in the First World War. He never had a chance to learn a trade before the War and when he returned, opprtunities were limited. He spent his entire working life in a succession of badly paid jobs as an 'unskilled labourer'.

My father seemed destined to follow the same path, leaving school at the age of 14 to work in a factory. But things had changed. A spell of National Service in the RAF at the end of the Second World War seemed to open new horizons and my father wasn't willing to meekly return to his old life. Instead, he went to night school and prepared for the Civil Service Entrance Exam which, in many ways, was an IQ test. He passed.

My father never became truly middle class, but he was a world away from his father's life, with its limited choices and low expectations.

By the time I was an 'A' Level student, in the 1980s, it felt as if class and background were completely irrelevant. But at university I learned how wrong I was.

The people at the Mansfield House University Settlement knew that lives were limited by social background and we should salute them for their efforts, even if their attempts at fundraising were a little overzealous!

12 comments:

LUCEWOMAN said...

A fascinating project, despite it's rather utopian ideals. There seems to be little hint that there was potential for a symbiotic positive outcome as a result of mixing 'good' with 'evil'. My family are a mixed bag of middle and lower classes. My mum used to tell my friends off if they claimed they were 'starving' as her mum would not allow any exaggeration in speech. My mum in law always seems to say she's starving when in the company of my parents and it takes all my strength not to giggle. As absurd as some of the practices were within the MH University project, I can't help wondering if a less naive but similar idea could actually work.

PearlFog said...

Fascinating stuff. I just can't get over how stylish and graceful the first two evildoers look, as does the sawed-up-bodies-in-the-bungalow boy!

As for the aims of the society, I would agree that for all they seem terribly patronising, it sounds well-intentioned and more likely to be helpful than otherwise.

However, I find the first part of their mission statement the most interesting: to offer the young men of this Oxford college "first hand experience of living and working with working-class people".

I come from a working class background, grew up in a small town in the Highlands of Scotland and went to Cambridge from 2004-07. I might as well have dropped in from Mars. When I would chat about my life, my tutors and my middle-class fellow students would simply refuse to believe me. Not only that, they insisted that I must be either mistaken or an outrageous lier. I couldn't possibly have been encouraged along with the rest of my class to leave school at 16, by the deputy rector. My high school couldn't have had 1200 pupils and a modern languages department consisting of two French teachers and six Gaelic teachers. My knowledge of prosody couldn't be entirely self-taught because my English department never mentioned it. Scottish people's stereotypical dislike of the English must come from deep and publicly acknowledged feelings of inferiority. That couldn't be my real voice or my real way of walking, I must be more similar to Rab C Nesbitt. One couldn't shop in Asda because the place was full of single mothers, who are obviously to be viewed as cultural lepers rather than fellow human beings.

They expressed such opinions to me with total conviction, despite the fact that I was talking about my own life and they had once gone to the Edinburgh festival. My best friends from state school backgrounds in Luton and Manchester experienced similar incredulity and stares daily.

For my part, it was an unsettling experience. I had met plenty of narrow-minded, parochial, ignorant people in my hometown. The difference was that the ones I met in Cambridge were likely to go on to run the country and dominate every aspect of the national media.

I'm sorry to rant but I spent three years being angry. I don't look for anger or enjoy it. I moved to Glasgow when I graduated, got a job in a clothes shop, read and write and think whatever I like and have been happy ever since.

It seems to me that people at Oxbridge spend thousands on gap years to go and gawp at the poor in India and Africa so that they can come back and brag about how enlightened it's made them. Maybe a scheme like this Mansfield House one would do actually do them some bloody good.

If you'll excuse me I'm going to go and take some deep breaths!

Martin H. said...

You certainly do turn up some interesting stuff. This is a brilliant read. I wonder if you caught this post, over at Idiotic Hat recently?

Gardener in the Distance said...

Class divisions are stupid and simply tie new generations up in lives of the past.
A wonderful, original post again, Steerforth.
It doesn't look like these boys had anything but two choices, an absurdity, surely? How this post makes me feel for our forbears, locked into roles as they were, with no means of progress/escape.
As a descendant of immigrants to the New World, I can understand their need for new horizons.

Tim Footman said...

I rather like the gurning political extremist, especially when you compare him with the identikit Blair/Cameron clones we get today. I'd vote for him, or at least spare a few minutes to listen to his dangerous ranting.

Modern Life is Rubbish said...

Probably my favourite post of the year.

You make a very interesting observation, and it's an experience I shared - back in the late 1980's when I found myself at Royal College - I realised within about half an hour that it didn't matter how much brighter or dedicated I was than everyone else, Kensington Gore was a long, long way from the shabby little Northern Town I grew up in - which might sound like a bit of a cliche - but it's true. I might as wall have won a flat cap and carried a bag of coal - by the afternoon I'd been 'sussed out' and declared irrelevant ( I'm not even 'that' Northern - my parents listened to Radio 4 and read The Telegraph. )

The only choices were to admit defeat and accept that sherry in the senior common room was not for me - or pretend to be something I wasn't... and I'm not a very good liar ( nor - frankly, was it that important, being introduced to Lord Snowdon loses some of it's sparkle when you realise he's pissed, smells of tobacco and his flies are undone ).

Mind you, I probably wouldn't have been welcome, one of the regular guests was Jean Muir - who always flinched and cowered when she saw me - I'd
accidently knocked her over outside the Royal Albert hall once when I was rushing for the tube - I'm 6'3" and she was about 4'5", it was like swatting a fly - she died shortly afterward, but I'm sure the two things are not connected.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Cor blimey guv, me old cock. Thought you was talkin' 'baut the East end o' Oxford there! Mean streets.

Yes a young man's church brass-rubbing drive is neglected at his peril!

What fabulous photos. Makes me want to know what results they achieved or did they just frustrate poor youngsters by giving them tastes way above the financial means they would ever have? Not going above your station in life was so important in those days.

Steerforth said...

Lucewoman - my mother says something far worse than "I'm starving". After a long journey, her first words to her hosts are usually "Oooh, I'm busting!" and off she goes, up the stairs. I spent my teen years squirming with embarrassment (and feeling guilty at the same time).

PearFog - I wouldn't call your eloquent and fascinating comment a rant - more a passionate expression of frustration at a situation that still persists, even though many try to deny it.

I also found university difficult, (although my background was hidden behind a Radio Four accent and the kudos of coming from a nice part of London) particularly the confidence and sense of entitlement that people from wealthier backgrounds enjoyed. I always felt as if I shouldn't be there, but felt equally out of place in my parents' world.

Martin - Thanks for the Idiotic Hat post, which was one of the best things I've read anywhere, either in blog or print.

Gardener - Funnily enough, I was only thinking the other day about how desperate people must have been to leave everything behind, knowing that whatever lay ahead couldn't be worse than what they'd left behind.

Tim - Yes, I love the political extremist too - I wonder who he was? There was more than a bit of the 'am-dram' about his pose.

Richard - I was very tempted to go and edit the Wikipedia entry on Jean Muir, but chickened out. Your experiences sound very familiar and what frustrates me is that some people just don't believe it, or think you're being 'chippy', but for me it was like being one of the few kids who wasn't made a prefect (and I wasn't).

Laura - I look forward to seeing you on the 19th!

Roger said...

It was experience of such places that radicalised Clement Attlee and other Labour politicians and the "one nation" tories who held views much more radical than the current labour party.

Roger said...

...though "radicalised" is not quite the word for Attlee...

EM said...

I've read some Mansfield House magazines from the 1890s, and their language isn't this bald - I don't think they talk about evil in quite the same way, although they can still be pretty blunt about life in Canning Town and all the problems they perceived.

As far as positive impact goes, certainly in its early decades MH people were involved in local politics and social work, and the area had quite a lot of proto-welfare state institutions (like nurseries) in the early 20thC, so I think it probably did more good than doing nothing. And the settlement movement in general definitely influenced the early Labour party, in my view for good, even if they were often quite patronising (or used language like good and evil!)

I don't know if Mansfield College still have a connection to Aston Mansfield, but a few of the Oxbridge colleges still keep up their old settlement links - there's definitely some institution in Camberwell to do with Trinity College Cambridge.

Richmonde said...

So so fascinating - and the comments, too! "My mum used to tell my friends off if they claimed they were 'starving' as her mum would not allow any exaggeration in speech." Your gran had a point! Yes, if we could do a Mansfield House in a 21st century way... and send Cameron and Osborne along. Cambridge in 2004? Sure you didn't mean 1944? (I used to get the opposite - vilification from people who thought I deserved it for sending their ancestors down mines and up chimneys. Please - my ancestors were only vicars and teachers, that's why they spoke so "nicely"!) I am writing a blog on the absurdities of snobbery: http://classsystem.blogspot.com/