Front Page Titles (by Subject) Mid-Late Twentieth Century: An Unprecedented Moral Quagmire JOHN MORRIS Brunel University - The Representation of Business in English Literature
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Mid-Late Twentieth Century: “An Unprecedented Moral Quagmire” JOHN MORRIS Brunel University - Arthur Pollard, The Representation of Business in English Literature 
The Representation of Business in English Literature, edited and with an Introduction by Arthur Pollard. Foreword by John Blundell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2009).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
Copyright 2009 by the Institute of Economic Affairs. Reprinted and online by permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Mid-Late Twentieth Century: “An Unprecedented Moral Quagmire”
THE SCENE IN THE 1930S
You gave a week of your life, every week, so that you might have a hovel for shelter, an insufficiency of food and five bob left over to clothe yourself and the missis in shoddy.—Walter Greenwood, Love on the Dole (1933)
It is difficult to find positive and appreciative images of business in twentieth-century English literature. This is especially true in the period leading up to the Second World War. By then the entrenched feeling among many writers reflected the powerful influence of Charles Dickens to the effect that business—capitalism—was a dirty, disreputable, tarnished affair in practice. Hard Times, Dombey and Son and in particular Our Mutual Friend, which includes an unseemly struggle for the ownership of a heap of dirt near the waters of the Thames, were profoundly influential on a whole range of differing writers from H. G. Wells to T. S. Eliot (the latter even considering an alternative title to The Waste Land  taken from Dickens’s novel).1
But there were further, political, reasons why the world of business and finance should have received such a “bad press” in creative writing. For by the 1930s literature had become increasingly polarised into Left and Right. For the Left, capitalism was seen as allied to fascism. Indeed, fascism was seen in Freudian terms as a kind of social-psychological disease whose financial wing was capitalist. There were those on the Left who considered fascism to be the last death-throe of capitalism faced by the advance of Marxist theory and practice.2 Thus W. H. Auden’s Miss Gee who wonders “Does anyone care / That I live in Clevedon Terrace / On one hundred pounds a year?” and who as a frustrated spinster is doomed to die of cancer, is portrayed as a victim, literally carved up by Church and State.
Such Freudo-Marxist analysis of how a predominantly capitalist society with an established church can use “the little people” may seem absurd now, but it was common in the 1930s when for many the Soviet Union and its policies offered the only fair financial prospects for the future. Stephen Spender’s picture of capitalist England as “the landscape of hysteria” similarly sees only exploitation and cruelty in a country where the profit motive is paramount. The passengers in an aircraft coming in to land
And here too capitalism is seen as in league with the Church in depriving people while obscuring the reality:
Images of Cultural Debasement
Yet the writers of the Right, Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Wyndham Lewis scarcely saw business and capitalism more favourably, partly because from their lofty stand-point they considered the counting of pennies and the charging of interest beneath them, but also because as mass society became larger and more integrated and more the creature of applied science, industry and technology they felt that standards were being debased. Indeed, John Betjeman spoke for many both of the Left and the Right in his 1937 poem when he invited bombs to “fall on Slough . . . and get it ready for the plough.” The “air-conditioned, bright canteens,” and the “tinned beans” and “tinned minds,” images of cultural debasement, are portrayed as the direct result of “The profits of the stinking cad.”5 Similarly, Gordon Comstock repeatedly in George Orwell’s 1936 novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (written as an attack on the worship of the “Money-God”), welcomed the idea of destroying the products of capitalist consumerist society because of their debasing effects, while Orwell’s own war-time diary echoed these sentiments:
It might now seem strange to us that creative writers of both Left and Right, divided on so much else, should have shared anti-business feelings, especially as Eliot became a director of Faber and Faber, Pound a propagandist for Mussolini, and Yeats an established figure close to the rich and privileged. What was really happening, I think, was that a great realignment was taking place, notably foretold by the remarkable Peter F. Drucker in his book The End of Economic Man (1939). Orwell too was quick to realise the significance of Drucker’s prediction and acknowledged it.7 Economically and therefore ultimately politically, Fascism and Communism were moving ever closer. The development of industry, technology and mass communication which accelerated in the 1930s in the face of probable war led remorselessly to even more powerful state capitalism on both sides of the political divide and eventually to the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939.
There is a further reason why business and industry should have been so negatively portrayed in the decade that produced the Means Test and the Jarrow Crusade. One would have thought indeed that the hardship and squalor vividly depicted in Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), written on behalf of the Left Book Club, would have encouraged the positive re-establishment of successful businesses properly financed and run so that the unemployment figure of three million could be significantly reduced. Yet that is scarcely found in the literature of the time which concentrated instead on the exploitation of workers, the poor working conditions and the callousness and cruelty of those who had succeeded in the system. But this further reason mentioned above has more to do with literature than with society. The problem goes back to the advent of the Modernist era in the first two decades of the twentieth century. It has been argued that literature faced a schism in the early years of the century. Should it concentrate on “the voyage without” or “the voyage within”? Was important creative writing to be about “the real world,” the world say of Rudyard Kipling whose work deals with war, empire, business, and so on, or the world, say, of James Elroy Flecker, the world of imagination, dream and spirit? Undoubtedly these two worlds which a Chaucer, a Shakespeare, a Donne, could bring together had become by 1910 so separate that a fusion was unthinkable.
Stream of Consciousness
It was perhaps because of this “dissociation of sensibility”—to use T. S. Eliot’s term—that ideas of what literature was supposed to be about, its very justification, divided into two “camps.” The more powerful and avant-garde of these become known as “stream of consciousness” writers: those who believed that creative writing should portray the life of the mind. One of its foremost apologists was Virginia Woolf who argued that the worthwhile literature of the early decades of this century was written by those who believed that the act of thought was “an event.” She referred to writers like James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and herself. Significantly, she illustrated what she meant by attacking writers like Wells, Shaw, Galsworthy and Bennett, that is, those who would claim they dealt with “the real world”: the world of business and money in particular, but also of politics and society. She argued that in a novel such as Arnold Bennett’s Hilda Lessways (1911) we could not hear characters’ voices, “we can only hear Mr. Bennett’s voice telling us facts about rents and freeholds and copyholds and fines.”8 She claimed that the “Edwardian” novelists—Bennett, Wells, Galsworthy—had stressed only “the fabric of things” and by so doing had been allowed to “palm off” upon the reading public “a version” of the living reality that constitutes a person’s character and life: “the Edwardians were never interested in character in itself; or the book in itself. They were interested in something outside.”9 Neither Wells nor Galsworthy tried to portray the reality of a character of, for example, an ordinary woman you might see in a railway compartment:
I do not think that Mr. Wells in his passion to make her what she ought to be, would waste a thought upon her as she is. . . . Burning with indignation, stuffed with information, arraigning civilisation, Mr. Galsworthy would only see in [her] a pot broken on the wheel and thrown into the corner.10
Perhaps Virginia Woolf’s most fundamental criticism of these novelists is as follows:
It is to express characters—not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic and alive, has been evolved.11
Those critics who, like Virginia Woolf, considered these “naturalistic” writers inferior, would tend to bracket together business and politics for they believed that the writers concentrated on “the voyage without” effectively derived from W. E. Henley and Rudyard Kipling “the dream of unending progress through empire and machine”12 even if the empire was not necessarily the British Empire but rather one of future socialistic propaganda.
I think it is important to recognise these influences because the “greatness” subsequently claimed by critics like F. R. Leavis for writers of whom Virginia Woolf approved—Joyce, Eliot, D. H. Lawrence—effectively denigrated those who dealt with the realities of the world of business, industry and politics. Not only would such a significant text as Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914) have been considered scarcely worth attention but even what are now seen to be novels of lasting importance—Wells’s Tono-Bungay (1909) and Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns (1902), for example—received scant regard as serious works of literature.
Even though Leavis considered Wells a very inferior novelist and “slapped down” Lord David Cecil for even mentioning Wells in the same breath as writers like Conrad and Lawrence,13 other critics have been highly appreciative of him as not only the father of science fiction but also “a great comic novelist” in the Dickensian tradition. Wells had also had experience of business which he portrayed in a number of novels: Kipps (1905), Tono-Bungay (1909) and The History of Mr. Polly (1910), for example. It is true that, as a socialist, Wells portrayed business as haphazard, a lottery and destructive, but it was always done with gusto, humanity and a sense of fun. In Tono-Bungay we see Uncle Ponderevo fantasizing about making a fortune by playing the stock market or cornering the market for a patent medicine like quinine, an antiseptic or cocaine. “Rather a nuisance to the doctors,” remarks his nephew George, the hero, to which he receives the reply:
“They got to look out for themselves. By Jove, yes. They’ll do you if they can, and you do them. Like brigands. That makes it romantic. That’s the Romance of Commerce, George.”14
Looking back on this conversation with the wisdom of adulthood, George tells us with biting irony:
I will confess that when my uncle talked of cornering quinine, I had a clear impression that anyone who contrived to do that would pretty certainly go to jail. Now I know that any one who could really bring it off would be much more likely to go to the House of Lords!15
Yet despite his uncle’s “going bust” and frittering away George’s inheritance, George cannot resist the attraction of helping his uncle to build a financial empire by advertising and marketing a patent medicine called Tono-Bungay that largely consists of distilled water. The activity is deeply satisfying and great fun:
We really worked infernally hard, and, I recall, we worked with a very decided enthusiasm, not simply on my uncle’s part, but mine. It was a game, an absurd but absurdly interesting game, and the points were scored in cases of bottles.16
Together they do succeed in building a financial empire—which subsequently crashes.
Arnold Bennett, too, as we have seen, was sneered at by those who considered themselves superior, in part because he portrayed the world of business. “He was declared to be a vulgarian who ‘stank of brass’—in Virginia Woolf’s word, a tradesman.” Yet Frank Swinnerton, whom I quote here, continued, “In reality he was an artist.” And of Bennett it has also been said, “although he regarded literature as a business, his imagination never became corrupt.”17
Bennett had an extraordinary capacity for describing the workings of a factory process such as a pottery involves:
Confronted with a piece of clay, the batting-machine descended upon it with the ferocity of a wild animal, worried it, stretched it, smoothed it into the width and thickness of a plate, and then desisted of itself and waited inactive for the flat presser to remove its victim to its more exact shaping machine. Several men were producing plates, but their rapid labours seemed less astonishing than the preliminary feat of the batting-machine. . . . Neither time nor space nor material was wasted in this ant-heap of industry. In order to move to and fro, the women were compelled to insinuate themselves past the stationary bodies of the men. . . . Everyone exerted himself as though the salvation of the world hung on the production of so much stuff by a certain hour; dust, heat, and the presence of a stranger were alike unheeded in the mad creative passion.18
Here, in my opinion, Bennett anticipated the kind of man-machine interface later to be portrayed in Eastern Europe by writers such as Zamiatin, Mayakovsky and Capek. Such prophetic futurism was not to be achieved by a workmanlike journeyman: there is real stylistic power here and, lest the reader does not make the proper connections, Anna, the eponymous heroine, who has just witnessed the awe-inspiring union of man and machine, ponders over “the organising power, the forethought, the wide vision, and the sheer ingenuity and cleverness which were implied by the contents of this warehouse. . . . It was a humble and deeply felt admiration.” The passage ends with the lightest touch of humour: “ ‘You seem to make a fine lot of tea-sets,’ she remarked.”19
Business and Industry—Class Divisions
Finally in this discussion of how and why business was portrayed as it was in the period that was to lead to the Second World War, I will briefly touch on the work of three further writers: Galsworthy, Lawrence and Forster. They all reflect class divisions when business and industry are portrayed.
In Galsworthy’s play The Skin Game (1920) there is a head-to-head confrontation between the landed gentry and a vulgar nouveau riche industrialist who justifies despoiling the countryside and breaking his promise not to evict people living in tied cottages on grounds of expediency: “My works supply thousands of people, and my heart’s in them. What’s more, they make my fortune. . . . Suppose I were to consider this and that, and every little potty objection—where should I get to?—nowhere!”20 Yet all is not as clear-cut as it may seem for the battle between the two emblematically named rivals. Hillcrist, the gent, has a wife who manages mercilessly to expose the marital and moral irregularity in the family of Hornblower, the vulgar industrialist. When it comes to hitting below the belt the message seems to be that the upper classes are more than a match for the lower. Similarly, in The Forsyte Saga it appears that the dynasty of property owners and lawyers is to be exposed. However, by the time the saga draws to its close, “The Forsytes who have been the villains of the early novel now become its heroes.”21
That business and industrialism debase mankind is a recurrent message in the major fiction of D. H. Lawrence from Sons and Lovers (1913) through The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1921) to Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). Worse than that in Lawrence’s view, the industrial emasculates mankind: it destroys what is vital and organic in him. It is significant in Lawrence’s portrayal that the upper-class mill-owners are mechanical types like Gerald Crich and Sir Clifford Chatterley. Gerald “glistens” like a machine, the word “mechanical” is constantly used in reference to him and during his wrestling bout with the “organic” Rupert Birkin, Gerald’s power is described as “plastic,” “frictional” and “mechanical” and his appearance as “gleaming.”22 Conversely, Birkin, the schoolteacher, is throughout Women in Love portrayed as vulnerable flesh which yet, unlike Gerald Crich’s, has the power to grow. Birkin, however, is constantly threatened by the mechanical:
Birkin fixed the iron handle of the sluice and turned it with a wrench. The cogs began slowly to rise. He turned and turned like a slave. . . . Ursula looked away. She could not bear to see him winding heavily and laboriously, bending and rising mechanically like a slave, turning the handle.23
Of course, Lawrence’s was an extreme view of industry and commerce but not one to be totally separated from other writers: some of Lawrence’s ideas and images are anticipated in the work of William Morris and even carried on in the poetry of T. S. Eliot.
Lawrence’s admirer, E. M. Forster, also portrayed social types whose characteristics are directly related to questions of wealth, class and business. There is the “anger and telephones” type (successful businessman), the “ancestral wisdom” type (one spiritually remote from the concerns of business, commerce and technology), and the lower or lower middle-class semi-cultured type (one in danger of falling into poverty and therefore out of “society”). Howards End (1910) clearly displays these types but it has to be said that whatever the social satire and indeed moral condemnation involved in the portrayal of Henry Wilcox’s behaviour, there is tacit acceptance that “anger and telephones”—that is, successful business practice—pays the mortgage even though Wilcox’s advice to Leonard Bass concerning finance and employment is an absolute disaster. On these matters, as on the Empire, Forster’s portrayal had an ambiguity which some find teasing and others irritating.
Indeed, overall, many writers of different genres, different political persuasions and different social opinions were ambiguous about business in the pre-war period and of course many have been since. “A necessary evil” might suggest something of a general approach to those who wished to write, be published and succeed as an influence in an age where patronage was increasingly scarce and where market size was increasingly developing in the direction of mass audiences, this being made possible and ultimately inevitable as the media industry accelerated towards what was to become an explosion in the post-war years.
THE POST-WAR ERA: THE BUSINESS OF DEATH AND ITS AFTERMATH
What was the war fought for? For many British writers it was not fought to restore the status quo with its inequalities of class and wealth. But although “fairer shares for all” might encapsulate the mood and wishes of many ex-military, ex-combat, writers and indeed the general mood, it was far from clear which economic system would or should prevail. The land-slide victory for Labour in 1945 ushered in a government which, within the space of a few years, had taken into state ownership the Bank of England and the coal, gas, electricity, iron and steel and transport industries. By the early 1950s a planned, nationally run, integrated industrial policy had been set in place, giving clear advantages as far as the co-ordination of services and capital investment were conceived. There were undoubtedly improvements in working conditions and in facilities such as hospitals and schools for many, yet those in charge, those in managerial and executive positions, tended to be from the same background as before the war: upper-middle class, privately educated, Oxbridge. Attlee’s massive programme of nationalisation and the creation of a National Health Service were brought in by a Cabinet nearly all of whom had been to Eton, Harrow or similar schools. Eighty percent of the country’s industry remained in private ownership. Thus, whatever socialist policies had achieved in the reorganisation of industry, little had been done to transform the character and structure of British society.
Yet had not George Orwell in “My Country Right or Left,” while patriotically applauding “the military virtues” and lambasting the “boiled rabbits” of the Left, acknowledged that if necessary “the red militias” should be billeted at the Ritz and “the London gutters run with the blood” to bring in a New Britain after the war?24 There is a sense in which the term “business as usual” took on for many writers an ironic and even pessimistic meaning in the forties and fifties. For what had really changed after all? Unless you were lucky or very talented you were in hock to a commercial or state-capitalist organisation, working your life away to make the rich richer and the powerful even more so. Such sentiments may seem a travesty and, indeed, those without a job, despite the advent of the Welfare State, would have recognised them as such, yet particularly in the writing fraternity the sense that this war had not delivered economically and socially any more than the Great War, was to continue powerfully at least until the 1970s.
During the war, and for a while after, there appeared a series of books called English Story edited by Woodrow Wyatt. Many were “Services Editions” and must have been read by thousands of serving men and women. The Fourth Series includes “Fancy Free,” a story by James Hanley. Ostensibly it is a graphic account of a drunken pub-crawl told in the present tense by a newly disembarked sailor in search of alcohol and female company. Yet it is also about death and money and the connection between the two. For the sailor meets a man whose job it is to stand behind a grille all day and dole out wages to sailors’ wives. The job had reduced him to a scarcely human shadow: “that was his place in this city . . . being pressed down and fated to wear a grey suit forever.”25 In the convivial atmosphere of the pub with its liquor and buxom barmaids, the man seems a harbinger of coldness and death, “a fish-eyed feller” dressed in grey whose incongruous appearance “tickles [the sailor] to death.”26 And in a monologue worthy of a plebeian character in The Waste Land the sailor pictures the man as symbolic of the spiritual death of someone who is caged daily to count out money:
Pass down between great walls, marvellous walls these, might be walls leading into Paradise, and doors everywhere, all shining, and clink and clank of office machines, and ringing of telephones, and they’re not the only bells that ring. Go far down this corridor, always keeping to . . . the left-hand side, and we come to a hole in the wall, iron grille there. You’re behind that. . . . you’re behind a grille. You pay out coin to sailors’ women, you have your hands dug into mountains of money, it might be sand or sugar or rubbish to you, so used to having your hand in it. Isn’t that right? . . . this grille’s finely woven, you might be a priest behind your confessional, you can’t see anybody or anything except the face that’s sort of flowed up to you, another thing, you never look up. That’s right, isn’t it? . . . Now if you pushed your head through this grille, which you never do, and might be frightened to do, if you did, you’d see a fair long line of sailors’ women, all drib and drab and shuffling up to your hole, and leaning about the walls and whispering, and never talking too loud, and edging up, by the mere inch, and one at a time they come to your grille . . . and you dive into the mass of money and hand some out, never say good day, never say thanks, say nothing at all. That’s you isn’t it? Sun might be pouring in all over that place, still you say nothing . . . Saying nothing’s a duty to do, and you do your duty. . . . [You] believe in nothing except figures, your head’s full of them, full of nothing else. . . . How you break away from them at day’s end, I don’t know, and God knows where you go to, but here you are and I can tell at a glance that you push yourself around all evening, crushing into this and that pub, all the time aiming to get away from your Figures, dancing in your head. . . . following you around everywhere. . . . That’s tough on you, but blame the grille.27
Shortly after, when he comes face to face with the vibrant barmaid Susie, “she looks hard at him” and he vanishes “just like he was shadow and not man.”28
War and Business
This positively Kafka-esque (or perhaps Dickensian) figure brings to mind a recurrent idea in twentieth-century literature to the effect that money and money-counting are not just degrading and dirty but also deathly. Such feelings were undoubtedly reinforced by both world wars, partly because they were industrial wars which acted inevitably as catalysts for the accelerating development of scientific and technological research and of commercial and state-capitalist expansion. The idea that war was a business was further reinforced by the increasing involvement of civilians not only in the war effort but also of course in the suffering of war, its death and destruction. The Blitz made London, the financial capital of the world, a front-line city and its areas of devastation are clearly anticipated in George Orwell’s novel Coming Up for Air (1939) and echoed in his last book 1984 (1949). Similarly, our greatest poet of the Second World War, Keith Douglas, who clearly saw war literally as diabolic and that to take part involved being in league with “the devil,” portrayed the commercial detritus that litters a battlefield:
As Peter Drucker has argued, the “devils” of hyperinflation and unemployment had haunted the Weimar Republic leading to Germany’s need for a homo magus or “witch doctor” to purge all ills by violence or war if necessary. (And were such ideas not already confirmed by the anthropological research of Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders?) In a real sense, therefore, total war was big business “gone mad,” an idea later to be confirmed with lacerating humour in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961).
A British novel which also deals with these ideas and which deserves to be better known is Alex Comfort’s The Power House (1944). Set in Northern France before and during the German occupation, the early part of the novel is dominated by La Virginie, a huge steam-engine which operates looms. The machine is so large and powerful it attracts the admiration and loving commitment of those who operate and tend it—or perhaps one should say “her.” But La Virginie is also a murderess who crushes the unwary who work near her in her 120-foot embrace. At her heart is a “cauldron of moving parts.”
La Virginie is part of an industrialised complex that includes mills, works, a chemical plant, a plastics factory and a slaughterhouse. Each has its own machines, smells, noises, pollution and dangers. Apart from industrial accidents there are the appalling conditions in which many work. It is the time of socialist and communist rallies and of pitched street battles with fascists just before the collapse of the Popular Front. And, of course, the “phoney war” is soon to become very real with the German invasion. Against this background we follow the lives of the employees, their hopes and fears, jealousies, sexual and emotional problems, the squalors and satisfactions of their working days. A good example of the two-way tug of employment is the case of Uncle Pécquard who loves and takes pride in the work that destroys his health—anticipating perhaps our current ambiguous attitude to the decline in Britain’s coal-mining industry since 1980.
Uncle Pécquard was having a bath, standing upright in it, his whole remarkably deformed body exposed to view. His forearms were bent into semicircles, and his thighs bowed as if he had stood upon them when they were soft, and so bent them. His skin was surprisingly white, and his face, from the enlargement of his skull and his lower jaw, was concave and triangular. He held it on one side, so as to look out of the corner of his eyes, the other side being gradually obscured by a cloud which had come over it during the last six months. He could still pick up a bale by its cord with the crane hook, however, by looking sideways. He walked sideways also, like a crab. He was soaping himself slowly, his bent arms working, and his body white from the shoulders down. His face was black with coal dust, except for white circles where he had knuckled his eyes, and a black patch covered the part of his back that his deformity prevented him from reaching. The markings on his face, the bent arms, made him resemble an erect Himalayan bear, peering through the steam to see who was opening the door.30
Comfort’s style—especially when he describes workers and their machines—owes something perhaps to Arnold Bennett and before him to Emile Zola, though he also writes with the eye of a surgeon. Uncle Pécquard, who works as a crane-operator, not only because of financial need at a time of growing unemployment, but because of intense pride in the job, is in his misfortune a symbol of the callousness of capitalist industry which will use, ruin and then discard. When found to be unfit for work he is given a small pension:
Old Pécquard bit his moustache and tried not to sob, since the dust from the ore and the rubbing of his eyes had made him tearless, so that all he could show of grief was a grimace. From then on he sat in his chair. When [his family] wanted him removed they pushed the chair with Uncle Pécquard in it.31
But something even bigger than these industrial concerns is taking place in his novel. For La Virginie, despite being for some positively voluptuous in her attractions, together with her fellow machines, comes to symbolise the plight of industrial man trapped in a system he cannot control that is in due course taken over by the Nazi army of military machine-men who reduce those captured further to slaves or even animals which, like those in the slaughterhouse, are dispensable once they have served their purpose. The pre-invasion scene was just a preparation for what was to follow. The novel, however, ends on a note of desperate fight, anarchy, subversion and passionate idealism:
Throughout continents, sickness and deformity are coming to be valuable. . . . We’re the weak. We’re bombed, starved, taxed, jailed, conscripted, shot or frightened. . . . We are the enemies of society, and we must learn disobedience. . . . You carry your freedom inside your skull and your ribs. . . . Therefore we hang to life like crabs to a piece of bait till they pull our legs off one at a time. . . . There is only one responsibility—to the individual who lies under your own feet. To the weak, your fellows.32
It is perhaps significant that the novel was prefixed with a German quotation whose translation is “killing is a form of our continuing bereavement.”
The American Connection
There is a further reason why business became associated with death both before and during the Second World War: the American connection. American influences on British culture had grown steadily since their significant advent during and after the Great War. However, following the Great Crash in 1929, American writing that portrayed business increasingly pictured commerce as destructive of talent and humanity: equally hard on those who were creative and those who were vulnerable. Even before the Wall Street crash, Scott Fitzgerald had portrayed the death of the eponymous Gatsby as a product of his financial and social success while the fact that no-one attends his funeral and his empty mansion is surrounded by ashpits takes on a symbolic value. And again in The Last Tycoon (published posthumously in 1941), the glittering tinsel world of Hollywood is seen to mask a cruel world of money versus art in which the talented and romantic hero Monroe Stahr is crushed by the power of the profit motive. Deceit and death also dominate the plays of Arthur Miller which portray business, like All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949). The “little guy” is callously swept aside by forces which even the victim himself, in this case Willy Loman, fails to recognise because he sentimentally harks back to the brave America of opportunity he had been brought up on. As Biff tells his father, he has been bred in an atmosphere of self-deception:
“I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air . . . I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you! You were never anything but a hard working drummer who landed in the ash-can like all the rest of them.”33
Images of death, such as ashes, are recurrent in mid-century American portrayal of the business world. One of the most telling and ironic, perhaps, is Kenneth Fearing’s brilliant evocation of a funeral (eerily reminiscent of Gatsby’s heartless end, though here at least are some nameless pallbearers):
Even “jokey” writers like e. e. cummings make connections between money and death:
Cummings also wrote memorably: “a salesman is an it that stinks to please.”36 Moreover, while he too links money and death, Ogden Nash in “Bankers Are Just Like Anybody Else, Except Richer” has the following:
In the trivialisation of banks, the suggestion of small-mindedness, Nash is following a well-established tradition of humour that had been seen also in the novels of Thornton Wilder:
“I’m closing up my account,” he said. “I’ll draw out everything except the interest.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’ll take out the money,” he repeated, raising his voice as though the cashier were deaf, “but I’ll leave the interest here.”
The cashier blinked a moment, then began playing with his coins. At last he said in a low voice: “I don’t think we’ll be able to keep your account open for so small a sum.”
“You don’t understand. I’m not leaving the interest here as an account. I don’t want it. Just turn it back into the bank. I don’t believe in interest.”
The cashier began casting worried glances to right and left. He paid out both sum and interest across the counter, muttering “. . . the bank . . . you must find some other way of disposing of the money.”
Brush took the five hundred dollars and pushed the rest back. He raised his voice sharply and could be heard all over the room saying, “I don’t believe in interest.”
The cashier hurried to the president and whispered in his ear. The president stood up in alarm, as though he had been told that a thief was entering the bank. He went to the door of the bank and stopped Brush as he was about to leave.
“Might I speak to you for a moment, Mr. Brush? In here.”
“Certainly,” said Brush, and followed him through a low door into the presidential pen.
Mr. Southwick had a great unhappy head rendered ridiculous by a constant adjustment of various spectacles and black ribbons. His professional dignity rested upon an enormous stomach supported in blue cloth and bound with a gold chain. They sat down and gazed at one another in considerable excitement.
“Mm . . . mm . . . you feel you must draw out your savings, Mr. Brush?” said the president softly, as though he were inquiring into a private and delicate matter.
“Yes, Mr. Southwick,” replied Brush, reading the name from a framed sign on the desk.
“. . . and you’re leaving your interest in the bank?”
“What would you like us to do with it?”
“I have no right to say. The money isn’t mine. I didn’t earn it.”
“But your money, Mr. Brush,—I beg your pardon,—your money earned it.”
“I don’t believe that money has the right to earn money.”38
The Technology of Control Systems
But at some point the “funny” aspects of business and finance inherent perhaps in the Keynesian idea that the stock market was “a lottery” became subsumed in its deathly aspect. Perhaps it was the advent of British futuristic novels such as Brave New World and 1984 where state controls meant that any fluctuation or movement in currency would be intended. Certainly the technology of control systems permeates the picture of a future society in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1952) where that society is divided into three groups: the professional managers (qualified people who operate the system), the proletariat, the “Reeks and Wrecks” (those with redundant or non-existent skills who are forced into the reconstruction and reclamation corps), and thirdly the machines (computers and computerised techniques) which control the system. What is portrayed is a financial and commercial society which, however competitive, entails the cultural death of man. For social engineering has meant that a
union of the country’s manufacturing facilities under one council has taken place . . . Similar councils had been formed for the transportation of raw materials, food and communication industries . . . The system had so cut waste and duplication, that it was preserved after the war and was often cited as one of the few concrete benefits of the war.39
Indeed, “waste and duplication” are eliminated through rationalisation and techniques of social control while future qualified workers are placed into professional and social slots by “grading machines.” The struggle of the emblematically named Paul Proteus, the arch-hero and “rebel observer,” is set against the remorseless development of civilisation “towards a techtopia where humanity is subordinated to its own mechanical means.”40 Significantly, it is clear that behind this novel lies the epoch-making early study of computer and cybernetic power and its social implications, The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener, itself a precursor of the disturbing study by Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason.41
When we look back now in the early 2000s we can see that business and finance and their computerisation, let alone society, are no more predictable and subject to real controls than quasars and black holes would have been fully in accordance with the laws of physics as taught in the early 1950s. But it has to be said that the dystopian look at finance and business set an important literary and cultural trend to the effect that those who work within the system need to use it before it uses them.
In Britain by the mid-1950s all that has been discussed above was established as an influence on the rising generation: those who were likely to have been called up at the tail-end of the war or involved in National Service. University education was being widened socially and attracted on a much greater scale those who came from working- and lower middle-class backgrounds. They knew that business was unscrupulous and cut-throat: many came from families that had been personally involved in its effects. They knew too that money was dirty: “filthy lucre”; “where there’s muck there’s brass.” Indeed, there was and is a cultural and literary tradition that links money to excretion: it can be found in Swift, Dickens, William Morris, D. H. Lawrence and right through to Martin Amis. The new generation were aware too of the dangers of work reducing one to a kind of automaton. Yet in general they wanted what is now called “part of the action” and their wants and requirements were, in Britain, to a significant degree class-driven. Key texts to support these claims are John Braine’s Room at the Top (1957), Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), and the poetry of Philip Larkin. Other writers of that period would be associated: John Wain and Stan Barstow, for example, while Muriel Spark and Stevie Smith wrote in part from their experience of business and commerce, the former publishing The Girls of Slender Means in 1963. Some of these writers are also associated with the group which became known as the “Angry Young Men” following Walter Allen’s review of Lucky Jim in 1954.42 “Angry” for a while some of them may have been in the sense that their social and financial origins debarred their progress to “The Fame and The Girl and The Money” but “rebels” they were not, despite being called so in some contemporary studies. On the contrary, in general it could be said that they were knocking at the door of success, if not the Establishment, and asking to be let in.
Room at the Top contains the essence of what we are concerned with here. Indeed, it came to typify the genre as did the name of its hero, Joe Lampton. “Working-class boy makes good” is an insufficient cliché, however, to do justice to the fierceness and, yes, anger with which Joe sets about his quest. Behind the fierceness and anger is the question of class, but it is not as simple as that because the hero has a hard-eyed, calculating quality that informs his aspirations. His lust to succeed is directed by awareness, experience and education. It is interesting that Joe comes to talk in terms of grades and of bridging the gap between grades as if here too in Warley, an industrial northern town that is significantly superior socially to his home town of Dufton, the kind of mechanical system had developed which predetermines status. We are not as far as it might seem from Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano. Here in my opinion is the most important passage which encapsulates and anticipates what the novel is about:
Then . . . something happened which changed my whole life. . . .
Parked by a solicitor’s office . . . was a green Aston-Martin tourer . . . a beautiful piece of engineering . . . ; it wasn’t the sort of vehicle for business or for family outings but quite simply a rich man’s toy.
As I was admiring it a young man and a girl came out of the solicitor’s office. . . .
The ownership of the Aston-Martin automatically placed the young man in a social class far above mine; but that ownership was simply a question of money. . . . This seems all too obvious; but it was the kind of truth which until that moment I’d only grasped theoretically. . . .
For a moment I hated him . . . I tasted the sourness of envy. Then I rejected it. . . . This didn’t abate the fierceness of my longing. I wanted an Aston-Martin, I wanted a three-guinea linen shirt, I wanted a girl with a Riviera suntan—these were my rights, I felt, a signed and sealed legacy. . . . I remembered the second hand Austin Seven which . . . Dufton’s Chief Treasurer had just treated himself to. That was the most the local government had to offer me; it wasn’t enough. I made my choice then and there: I was going to enjoy all the luxuries which that young man enjoyed. I was going to collect that legacy. It was as clear and compelling as the sense of vocation which doctors and missionaries are supposed to experience though in my instance of course the call ordered me to do good to myself not others.43
And, of course, Joe Lampton does get the girl and the job and the money, sufficient no doubt eventually to buy an expensive car. He does it by courting (and in the end almost raping) Susan Brown, the daughter of his future boss, the major local industrialist who realises what has happened and with grudging admiration for Joe’s success and determination is prepared to admit him to the family and a good job with his company despite Joe’s lack of pedigree: “See her tomorrow and get it done with, I’ll not have it put off anymore.” When Joe inquires why he resisted the match earlier, old Brown says: “You should have seen to it that your parents had more brass.”44
It is “brass” that determines events in the novel and defines a kind of harsh morality. The discarded mistress, Alice Aisgill, already into early middle age, kills herself in a horrific intentional motor accident that leaves her crawling half-dead in her own blood. Yet the overall effect is less one of pity for her than the inevitability and in a sense rightness of her destruction. She was in the way. She had played around with too many men, we are told, and anyway as her former girl friend tells our hero: “. . . it was all for the best. She’d have ruined your whole life.”45 Thus Alice symbolises in her demise the ruthlessness of the business ethic, although I am not sure that John Braine would have seen it quite in this way. As with the other novelists of this genre there was a definite ambivalence concerning those who succeeded in making money. When Joe muses “honour, like freedom, is a luxury for those with independent incomes,”46 I suspect it is the author speaking, and yet of course much of the evidence which the novel itself provides would contradict this statement.
The Angry Young Men—a World of Absurdity
It is true that the early novels, poems and plays of the “angry young men” were “egotistical” in the Keatsian sense—that is, that their work re-created their own world. Like Jim Dixon, Kingsley Amis had experienced working as a young university lecturer on probation. That world through Amis’s uncanny gift for humorous invention seems to be transformed into something “rich and strange”: a world of absurdity, of at times “Alice in Wonderland” dimensions, though I can vouch for the fact the universities have indeed gone through absurdist periods, largely due to government interference! In Lucky Jim there are strange pre-echoes of the plot of Room at the Top in that when Jim is invited to the ridiculous weekend party at his Professor’s house he meets his odious, pretentious son Bertrand (pronounced in the French manner) whose beautiful girlfriend, Christine, Jim instantly falls in love with. As in the case of Jack Wales, Susan Brown’s former intended in John Braine’s novel, the anger felt by the protagonist is fired to white-hot proportions by the snobbish superiority of the upper-class, public school-educated rival for the lady’s hand—although other parts of her body attract most of his attention. Once again the ex-grammar schoolboy wins through, getting the girl and the job and an entrée into money and privilege. Jim’s career as a university lecturer ends farcically when he collapses drunkenly while giving a public lecture on “Merrie England” before an audience that includes the Principal and most of the College Council. But his dismissal is well compensated for when he is taken on as a well-paid private secretary to Christine’s wealthy uncle, Julius Gore-Urquart.
Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is another central character with a job which in many ways he despises. Like his creator he had worked at a piece-work rate on the production line in a Nottingham cycle factory. Monday, for him, is “back to the treadmill.” Although Arthur is a joker with an eye for the girls and a passion for beer, a man full of vitality, he communicates memorably the deathly, mind-numbing repetitiveness of his work. Not inappropriately, D. H. Lawrence springs to mind when we read the following:
The minute you stepped out of the factory gates you thought no more about your work. But the funniest thing was that neither did you think about work when you were standing at your machine. . . . The noise of motor-trolleys passing up and down the gangway and the excruciating din of flying and flapping belts slipped out of your consciousness after perhaps half an hour, without affecting the quality of the work you were turning out. . . . You went off into pipe-dreams for the rest of the day. And in the evening, when admittedly you would be feeling as though your arms and legs had been stretched to breaking point on a torture-rack, you stepped out into a cosy world of pubs and noisy tarts that would one day provide you with the raw material for more pipedreams as you stood by your lathe.47
He works of course just for the money; his job means that half his life is lived vicariously. Can, could such a means of employment be socially, indeed humanly, justified? And yet, rebel that he seems to be in some ways, Arthur too wishes to join, to be engaged, in the very set-up that the novel satirises. In an interesting and revealing passage near the end of the novel while Arthur is fishing by the canal, he compares himself to the fish:
As soon as you were born you were captured by fresh air that you screamed against the minute you came out. Then you were roped in by a factory, had a machine slung around your neck, and then you were hooked up by the arse with a wife.
And then Arthur continues: “It meant death for the fish, but for a man it might not be so bad. Maybe it was only the beginning of something better in life.”48
Most revealing of all are Arthur’s final thoughts:
Slung into Khaki at eighteen, and when they let you out, you sweat again in a factory, grabbing for an extra pint, doing women at the weekend and getting to know whose husbands are on the night-shift, working with rotten guts and an aching spine, and nothing for it but money to drag you back there every Monday morning.
Yet he continues immediately: “Well, it’s a good life and a good world, all said and done, if you don’t weaken.”49That is the prime characteristic of the 1950s novels of this genre: defiant optimism despite the moaning (some would say whining) about the job, the money, the system. If they can, the heroes want to be inside and climb towards success and happiness.
Arthur’s foreman is called Robboe which suggests indeed that here too the author was aware that factory office employees were being treated like machines (robots) with the implication that in the future the identification between man and machine could become even closer. Even in the poetry of Philip Larkin there are such suggestions: that an employee becomes programmed to respond to just this or that situation in the workplace, recognise this face and ignore that. Sometimes the stimuli are mechanical or electronic as in the superb “Aubade”:
Frequently the imprisonment in work—in Larkin’s case at a university—is inseparable from money and the need for it with which, as is the case of so many writers, especially of the post-war period, he had an ambiguous relationship. “Money” or its equivalent as an image or epithet is recurrent in this verse (from “Neurotics”):
In “Modesties” he spoke of “Thoughts that shuffle round like pence” and in “Arrival” of shovelling “faces like pennies down the back of mind.” And most potently of all, in the poem “Money” he speaks of the futility of our dependence on it:
The famous “Toads” is ostensibly about “work” but of course the need to do it—to be trapped and crushed by it—is inseparable from the need for money:
And in “Toads Revisited” work, and therefore money (a.k.a. “toad”), are appropriately equated with death:
THE SIXTIES AND BEYOND
The 1960s has been called “the Swinging Decade”: one in which “having fun” now and not considering the morrow was fashionable and one which even spawned quasi-oriental philosophies that were anti-work, anti-business and anti-profit. The influence of hippie-dom harked back to the beatniks of the fifties. Yet some of those who appeared most in support of such a life-style ended up becoming—to use a later term—“seriously rich.”
During the late 1960s money and its application in society became quite suddenly trendy. The Beatles—who helped to power the financial success of Carnaby Street and The King’s Road—Mary Quant, Terence Conran and many others effectively focused an explosion of talent and creativity that were unmistakably marketable. And yet the picture we get of business, finance and money itself in the writing of the 1970s and indeed into the succeeding decades is one of mockery and guilt with increasingly a note of hysteria and death—just as if the legacy of the Second World War, far from abating, intensified. Moreover, when one thinks of the accelerating impact of new technology on industry and the money markets, all this is hardly surprising.
The topic of money was certainly “in the air” by 1972—or perhaps I should say “on the air” because of the phenomenal success of the film version of Cabaret and its hit song “Money, Money, Money.” The musical had a strange history which takes us back to the 1930s, the period at which this essay begins, for although the musical was based on John van Druten’s play I Am a Camera which had also been made into a successful film in 1955, its real genesis was Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939).
The Role of Money: The “Mad” Christie Malry
The role of money in society and the ethics of the situation have always interested writers, of course, but by the early 1970s we are firmly in the run-up to massive computerisation and globalisation of money systems—a process which still continues and whose effects can alarm and surprise even seasoned observers. In 1973 appeared an extraordinary novel called Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B. S. Johnson. There is something rather “mad” about the work, but then in the era of Monty Python, which targeted institutions like the BBC, universities, government departments and banks, such a quality seems singularly appropriate—the novel even has the characteristic of referring to itself as a novel just as in Monty Python you get characters saying: “What a way to end a sketch!” This novel moves us firmly into the era 1970-90, that was to produce such revealing and often absurd—in the literary sense—pictures of the commercial world as David Hare’s Plenty, Martin Amis’s Money and Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money, of which works more discussion later.
The novel begins: “Christie Malry was a simple person. It did not take him long to realise that he had not been born into money,” and soon continues: “He therefore decided that he should become a bank employee. I did tell you Christie was a simple person.”55 While working at the bank Christie finds he is increasingly irritated by colleagues whose acts of wrong towards him as he sees them need, in his opinion, recompense. During his evenings Christie studies Accountancy and becomes aware of the system of Double-Entry which leads to his “Great Idea”: that is that he should draw up a double-entry account with “Them”: other people in the world. Every offence he considers he has received is shown as a debit on his account with “Them” which duly receives a recompense to be credited to the other column of the account. For example, the bank’s General Manager is unpleasant and £1.00 is debited, but a small kindness from a female colleague results in 28p credit. Soon Christie is getting his recompense by scratching the façade of an Edwardian office-block or leaving his mother’s funeral bill unpaid.
Much of the early part of this novel is farcical or absurd—but there is an interesting undertone of serious disturbance suggesting desperation that the mad world of society (and its transactions) is not recognised for what it is. These matters are focused by the author through his device of Christie Malry’s double-entry. For example, when leaving his mother’s funeral the clergyman who has officiated at the service hands him a leaflet. Christie’s reaction is to write the following letter to the Borough of Hammersmith Weights and Measures Department: