5.3.36

At 21 Estcourt Avenue, Headingley, Leeds. [1]

I left Sheffield at 10.30 this morning, and in spite of its being such a frightful place and of the relief of getting back into a comfortable house, I was quite sorry to leave the Searles. I have seldom met people with more natural decency. They were as kind to me as anyone could possibly be, and I hope and trust they liked me. Of course I got their whole life-history from them by degrees. Searle is 33 and was an only child. When a youth he joined the Army and was in the Ordnance Corps (or whatever it is called) with the army of occupation in Palestine and in Egypt. He has vivid memories of Egypt and wishes he was back there. Since then he has only had short-lived jobs, eg. as store-keeper and check-weighman at various works, also as railway (outside) porter. Mrs. S. comes from a somewhat more prosperous family, as her father till only a few weeks ago* was in a good job at £5 a week and also made something on the side by making fishing rods. But it was a very large family (11) and she went into service. She married S. when he was on the dole, against the opposition of her family. At first they could not get a house, and lived in a single room, in which two children were born and one died. They told me they had only one bed for the family and had to “lay out” the dead baby in the perambulator. Finally, after frightful difficulty (one reason for this is that private landlords are not too keen on letting to people on the dole and there is a certain amount of bribery of agents) they got this house, of which the rent is about 8/6. Mrs. S. earns about 9/- a week from her charring. Exactly what deduction is made for this from S’s dole I don’t know, but their total income is 32/6. In spite of which I had great difficulty in getting them to accept enough for my keep while there – they wanted to charge only 6/- for full board and lodging from Monday night to Thursday morning. They keep the house very clean and decent, have a bit of garden, though they can’t do much with it, as it has factory chimneys on one side and the gas works on the other, besides being poor soil, and are very fond of one another. I was surprised by Mrs S’s grasp of the economic situation and also of abstract ideas – quite unlike most working-class women in this, though she is I think not far from illiterate. She does not seem resentful against the people who employ her – indeed she says they are kind to her – but sees quite clearly the essential facts about domestic service. She told me how the other day as she waited at the lunch table she calculated the price of the food on the table (for 5 persons for one meal) and it came to 6/3 – as much as the P.A.C. allows her child for a fortnight.

Brown was very good and took my request to “show me over Sheffield” even too seriously, so that from morning to night I was being rushed from place to place, largely on foot, to see public buildings, slums, housing estates etc. But he is a tiresome person to be with, being definitely disgruntled and too conscious of his Communist convictions. In Rotherham we had to have lunch at a slightly expensive restaurant because there didn’t seem to be any others except pubs (B. is TT.), and when in there he was sweating and groaning about the “bourgeois atmosphere” and saying he could not eat this kind of food. As he declares that it is necessary to literally hate the bourgeoisie, I wondered what he thought of me, because he told me at the very start I was a bourgeois and remarked on my “public school twang.” However, I think he was disposed to treat me as a sort of honorary proletarian, partly because I had no objection to washing in the sink etc., but more because I seemed interested in Sheffield. He was very generous and though I had told him at the start that I was going to pay for his meals etc. while we were together, he would always go out of his way to spare me expense. It seems that he lives on 10/- a week – I had this from Searle: exactly where B’s 10/- comes from I don’t know – and the rent of his room is 6/-. Of course it would not be possible to subsist on the remainder, allowing for fuel. You could only keep alive on 4/- a week (see attached) [2] if you spent nothing on fuel and nothing on tobacco or clothes. I gather B. gets meals from time to time from the S’s and other friends, also from his brother who is in comparatively good employ. His room is decent and even cultured-looking, as it has bits of “antique” furniture which he has made himself, and some crude but not disagreeable pictures, mostly of circuses, which he has painted. Much of his bitterness obviously comes from sexual starvation. His deformity handicaps him with women, his fear of transmitting it has stopped him from marrying (he says he would only marry a woman past the childbearing age), and his inability to earn money makes it more impossible still. However, at one of the Adelphi summer schools he picked up with some schoolmistress (aged 43) who I gather is his mistress when opportunities permit and who is willing to marry him, only her parents oppose it. The Searles say he has improved greatly since taking up this woman – before that he used to have fits occasionally.

We had an argument one evening in the Searles’ house because I helped Mrs S. with the washing-up. Both of the men disapproved of this, of course. Mrs S. seemed doubtful. She said that in the North working-class men never offered any courtesies to women (women are allowed to do all the housework unaided, even when the man is unemployed, and it is always the man who sits in the comfortable chair), and she took this state of things for granted, but did not see why it should not be changed. She said that she thought the women now-a-days, especially the younger women, would like it if men opened doors for them etc. The position now-a-days is anomalous. The man is practically always out of work, whereas the woman occasionally is working. Yet the woman continues to do all the housework and the man not a handsturn, except carpentering and gardening. Yet I think it is instinctively felt by both sexes that the man would lose his manhood if, merely because he was out of work, he became a “Mary Ann.”

One particular picture of Sheffield stays by me. A frightful piece of waste ground (somehow, up here a piece of waste ground attains a squalor that would be impossible even in London), trampled quite bare of grass and littered with newspaper, old saucepans etc. To the right, an isolated row of gaunt four-room houses, dark red blackened by smoke. To the left an interminable vista of factory chimneys, chimney behind chimney, fading away into a dim blackish haze. Behind me a railway embankment made from the slag of furnaces. In front, across the piece of waste ground, a cubical building of dingy red and yellow brick, with the sign, “John Grocock, Haulage Contractor.”

Other memories of Sheffield: stone walls blackened by smoke, a shallow river yellow with chemicals, serrated flames, like circular saws, coming out from the cowls of the foundry chimneys, thump and scream of steam hammers (the iron seems to scream under the blow), smell of sulphur, yellow clay, backsides of women wagging laboriously from side to side as they shove their perambulators up the hills.

Mrs Searle’s recipe for fruit loaf (very good with butter) which I will write down here before I lose it:

1 lb flour. 1 egg. 4 oz. treacle. 4 oz. mixed fruit (or currants). 8 oz. sugar. 6 oz. margarine or lard.

Cream the sugar and margarine, beat the egg and add it, add the treacle and then the flour, put in greased tins and bake about ½ to ¾ hour in a moderate oven.

Also her ‘54321’ recipe for sponge cake:

5 oz. flour, 4 oz. sugar, 3 oz. grease (butter best), 2 eggs, 1 teaspoonful baking powder. Mix as above and bake.

*He died very suddenly & his wife has now no resources expect the old age pension & an insurance policy [handwritten footnote].

[1] 21 Estcourt Avenue: Home of Orwell’s older sister, Marjorie (1898–1946) and her husband, Humphrey Dakin (1896–1970). They had married in July 1920. He worked for the National Savings Committee. Orwell visited them from time to time ‘to get some writing done and be looked after by his sister. Humphrey seemed to resent this’, considering Orwell as a work-shy drop-out (see Orwell Remembered, pp. 127-30). Orwell stayed with the Dakins from 5-11 and 26-30 March 1936.

[2] attached: the item attached was a cutting from the News of the World, 1 March 1936, showing how a W. Leach of Lilford Road, London, S.E., needed to spend only 3s 11½d a week on food (20p in decimal currency). When, in November 1993, I costed the items he listed the total came to about £8.80. Mr Leach stated that though he preferred to boil the carrots he bought, he ate them raw because ‘to boil water cost too much’. This remark prompts one to wonder how genuine was Mr Leach’s claim. For further details see The Road to Wigan Pier, pp. 87-8.

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