Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The servant problem

A slightly longer version of the piece by me that was in the Guardian on Monday.

Ronald Fraser, who died earlier this month, was an oral historian who, in his haunting book, In Search of a Past, directed his researches at his own privileged childhood. Through long interviews with the servants who used to look after him and transcripts of sessions with his psychoanalyst, his book unravels the tortuous dynamic between employers and servants in the manor house near Aldermaston where he was brought up, in the years leading up to and during the Second World War.

This period coincides with that covered by the current BBC series Upstairs Downstairs, although that is set in Belgravia rather than Berkshire. A common objection to these Sunday night dramas from the era of domestic service is that they paint a roseate picture of life below stairs, contributing to a paternalist myth which imagines that skivvies were quite happy in their subordinate roles. But it seems to me that Upstairs Downstairs is barely about the relationship between upstairs and downstairs at all. As with Downton Abbey, a house with a retinue of servants is mainly a dramatic device for bringing together contrasting characters under one roof, which becomes a naturalised background in front of which other narratives unfold. Sir Hallam Holland and his punctilious butler Mr Pritchard are not defined by their relationship in Upstairs Downstairs; it is just part of the period furniture, like the art deco beds and the strange way people held cigarettes in the 1930s.

Fraser’s book, by contrast, suggests that the relationship between servants and their employers dominated their lives, and that it was as much a psychic as a social divide. Employing servants was far more than a financial contract or even an expression of the class system: rather, it was an emotional minefield, full of resentment, guilt and grudging obligation on both sides. Fraser’s manor house is a world in which everyone feels trapped in a social performance. Even the lives of the idle rich, buried behind their newspapers or playing monopoly in the afternoon, do not seem enviable.

Following Fraser's book, a number of historians, such as Carolyn Steedman, Alison Light and Selina Todd, have sought to uncover the previously neglected history of domestic service. The main insight of these histories is that the very intimacy of the relationship between servant and employer bred particular tensions and frustrations that were not simply reducible to questions of money or social class. The resentment of the servants is unsurprising. The memoirs of Margaret Powell, which partly inspired the original series of Upstairs Downstairs and which have just been republished, bristle with the sense that "servants were not real people with minds and feelings. They were possessions.”

More surprising, perhaps, is the resentment felt by their employers. “The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went”, wrote the short story writer Saki in 1904. A common upper-middle-class complaint in the first half of the last century was the problem of getting decent staff, and the tendency of bolshy servants to demand perks or more pay on the threat of handing in their notice. As Alison Light reveals in her book Mrs Woolf and the Servants, Virginia Woolf complained bitterly about her servants, and had an intense, difficult relationship with them which a psychoanalyst would surely define as co-dependence. The arguments and appeasements between Woolf and her cook and housemaid sound quite draining and far more work than not having servants at all, and indeed Woolf found it a relief later in her life when she took on some of the domestic tasks herself.

Wherever there is repetitive, poorly paid work to be done and it is distributed unequally, this issue returns. The green baize door may no longer exist, but today's arguments about the "slave labour" of unpaid work experience and "job snobs" are strangely reminiscent of what used to be called the servant problem. On last Thursday's edition of This Week, Michael Portillo argued that “people have to be willing to do things right at the bottom”. He claimed that a tenth of Americans begin their working lives "flipping a hamburger" and that in Spain, unlike in Britain, waiting on tables was seen as a profession. For years, young people in this country have been fed the rhetoric of meritocratic elitism and social aspiration. Now, older notions of the dignified, vocational nature of "service" are being revived - and not only on Sunday night television.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Coronarchie Street

'When I get driven in from the airport I can see many houses that are much nicer than those on your street,' Granada's chairman, Sidney Bernstein, told the first commissioning producer of Coronation Street, Harry Elton. 'Is this the image of Granadaland that we want to project to the rest of the country?' In 1963 a village debating society in Hayfield, where the Street's creator Tony Warren lived, debated whether 'Coronation Street is a cul de sac'. One speaker blamed the programme for causing unemployment in the north, because its bleak imagery dissuaded businesses from investing in the region; another said it made people believe that 'Northerners were peasant morons'. Harry Kershaw, the programme's executive producer, insisted that the soap was not meant to be a period piece and that there were 'a hell of a lot of Coronation Streets still left – and if we have to wait till the bulldozers knock down the last one, we shall have a pretty long life'.

Actual streets like Coronation Street were being demolished in great numbers in the programme's early days: a common sight in Salford and Hulme in the 1960s was an entire row of houses marked with an X, under sentence of demolition. Granada soon had to build its own street, first in the studio and then outside, there being no suitable ones left near the Granada Studios in Quay Street, Deansgate in which to film exteriors. Archie Street, the real street used in the opening and closing credits of the soap, was the home of Eddie Colman, one of the 'Busby Babes' killed in the Munich air crash of 1958; some of the Man United players, including Bobby Charlton, would go there for tea after training. Nicknamed 'Coronarchie Street' by locals, it was condemned in 1967 in Salford's last great slum clearance scheme and finally demolished in 1971, when Bernard Youens and Jean Alexander, who played Stan and Hilda Ogden in the soap, went along to pay their last respects (in character) ...

I've just published an article in the latest issue of Urban History, called 'Imagining the Street in Post-War Britain', which discusses Coronation Street and other representations of the street in photography, architecture and sociology. If anyone would like a copy, email me and I will send you one.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The Oyster wand

I'm looking forward to the new BBC2 series starting on Monday: The Tube, a fly on the wall of the London Underground. On Twitter I heard a story, perhaps an urban myth, about a man who removed the chip in his Oyster card and placed it on the end of a magic wand. So he waves his magic wand and the automatic barriers respond to his command like 'Open Sesame'. I do hope it is true.

Whenever I am in London, I am struck by the way that the Underground marks the starkest boundaries between tourists and natives. While the former fumble for change and try to work out how to renew their cards, and flinch at the barriers as though they are not quite convinced they will open for them, the latter absent-mindedly place their cards on the electronic reader, and walk straight through the barriers in one fluent movement, knowing the exact moment at which they will open, so their stride is not broken. Some don't even bother to take their Oyster cards out of their handbags or wallets, knowing that the reader will be able to detect them through the leather.

These natives also respond to the beeping sound that precedes the closing of the train doors by instinctively contorting their bodies to fit into the carriage; and they undertake complex manoeuvres while reading newspapers or talking on mobile phones, pulled along by force of habit and the momentum of other moving bodies. They are as at home in their natural habitat as swifts on the wing.

I think there are about three million journeys made each day on the Underground - commutes, tourist trips, assignations, visits to meet friends, aimless journeys by the confused and depressed - and thanks to the Oyster card there is now an electronic record of almost all of them.

Mundane quote for the day: 'As if everything happens in London and the rest of the world doesn't matter. Every paper you pick up, every time you turn on the television or listen to the news, it's London, London, London, all the time. You come home from work, turn on the news and the announcer's there, and he says the temperature on the Air Ministry roof is such and such. And there you are! Buses can have been blown over in Newcastle and people killed – but the temperature on the Air Ministry roof is such and such!' - Huddersfield man, quoted in Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden, Education and the Working Class (1962)

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Mundane openings

My book Queuing for Beginners began with the following sentence: 'On Friday 12 March 1937, a series of uninteresting events unfolded across Britain.' I've always been interested in the deliberately ungripping opening sentence, the kind that challenges you to read on through its uncompromising mundanity rather than by grabbing you by the narrative throat.

Perhaps the most famous example is the lowkey opening to A Question of Upbringing, the first book in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time sequence, which begins with a surprisingly riveting description of some roadworks: 'The men at work at the corner of the street had made a kind of camp for themselves, where, marked out by tripods hung with red hurricane-lamps, an abyss in the world led down to a network of subterranean drain-pipes.'

The first sentence of Alan Partridge's autobiography, I, Partridge, is almost there: 'When I was eight years old, I suffered a nose bleed so profuse and generous, I bolted from the schoolyard and sought solace in the first-class countryside of Norfolk.' But I think that is just trying too hard.

The opening of chapter six of Chris Bowers's biography of Nick Clegg is, however, exemplary: 'In the autumn of 1998, former Conservative home secretary Leon Brittan - by then Sir Leon Brittan, now Lord Brittan of Speenithorne - was standing on the Eurostar platform at Waterloo station, reading some literature he had in his briefcase.'

Mundane quote for the day: 'It is a sad fate to be the child of the urban or suburban middle classes. As a first or a fourth are the only dignified kinds of degree to get, so one's upbringing must be conducted either in several establishments with several bathrooms each or in one with none, if it is to distil any glamorous potential. Compared with the upper and lower levels alike – but especially with the lower, to which it has many unlooked-for similarities – the middle stratum is bound to seem drab and glum. Beset by constant anxieties about decorum, it has never devised a traditional way of enjoying itself. Alongside those of the working classes, its fears show up as neurotic, unreal and self-regarding.' - Kingsley Amis, From Aspidistra to Juke-Box