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:
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!