The conclusion of an essay by journalist and author
, in which he pictures his nineteenth-century self that would have been; he also traces the end of the industrial era and the role he fears he played in it.
To read Part I, click
In the mid-nineteenth century I would have been a ranting cobbler-preacher, attracting a small crowd of devout believers to some extreme dissenting sect in a cold red-brick chapel in a slum area abandoned even by the Primitive Methodists. I would have worked at home, collecting the uppers from shop, and working at a bench in the kitchen of rented rooms. I would despise the work I was doing – bespoke dancing pumps for the daughters of a local manufacturer to waltz their way through the night in the new crystal conservatory their father had constructed as an annexe to his substantial villa on the edge of town. Unlike my fellow workers – who usually earned their week’s wage by working ceaselessly for three days and nights and then going on the booze for the rest of the week – my weekly labour finished, I would open my Bible or my copy of Bunyan, read by a farthing rushlight and lose myself in visions of the better world that was, and was not, this one.
My wife would disturb me in the early hours, wondering why I had not come to bed, and express her bitterness about the vagrancy of my mind, even though I never strayed physically far from the draughty tenement we occupied in Alliston gardens – one of the most shameful addresses in town, a sombre four-storey of rented rooms that still stood in the centre of Northampton until the 1960s. She would have reproached me for my lack of ambition, and worse, for failing to provide a half-decent life for my family. Goaded, I would, for a time at least, have abandoned my books and dedicated myself to work, so that we could afford one of the little houses being built on the eastern limit of town, called Upper Thrift Street. While I railed against the curse of riches and her perverse desire to return to the fleshpots of Egypt, she would tartly point out that she had seen nothing but the wilderness and had never known what it meant to eat bread to the full.
I would move the family into the new house, with its adjacent workshop; and in our new prosperity, I would have taken on an apprentice; a young man I had ‘rescued’ from the ‘burrows’, those courts and lanes of slum housing behind the town centre. Ostensibly to compensate for the absence of a son, the interest I took in him would have been far from fatherly, although it is unlikely that I would ever have become conscious of the nature of my attraction to him. He would have moved into the house as a lodger. I would have vested my hopes and dreams in him, and he, a not particularly skilled or conscientious boy, would have infuriated and enchanted me; I would indulge his idleness and lack of ambition, tolerate anything; until the day when I discovered, to the shame and dishonour of the family, my daughter was pregnant. Embittered and angry – and perhaps unconsciously jealous – I would have dismissed him from the house and from our lives. But that would not be the last of him. As soon as the child was born, I heard his voice in its crying and laughter; and this would accompany me to my grave. Through all this, I would have remained unaware of the ambiguity of my sexuality, buried, as it was, beneath radical proprieties of a world deaf to my thin and useless fulminations.