Thursday, 5 March 2009

Something in the Water.

Would Manchester have been the first collectivist city state in recent history, I wondered to myself the other day as I walked past the Venetian style Town Hall, still as tall and imposing as it was the first time I ever saw it, to the equally impressive but much smaller Chethams College, housing its famous library. Libraries are well used places in Manchester, both historically and presently, ranging from the almost-New-York-Gothic splendour of the John Rylands to the Central Library in its Romanesque stateliness and the private members library of the Portico Club. Some time ago, when Manchester was at the height of its industrial powers, Marx and Engels met in the Medieval reading room of Chethams Library, ten minutes walk from the Town Hall. They would not have been able to see the Town Hall, even though Harvey Nichols was yet to be built and Selfridges was safely confined to London. The smog and the soot would have seen to any visibility and the large oriel windows of the room they were in would have afforded views of vast Ancoats in the other direction, much of which still survives, although heavily gentrified, stretching on forever in rows of terraced housing. Then the houses would have slept forty or so people each, in sweaty slums, wet cellars and freezing attics. Those not able to afford the relative comfort of a place in these houses would have relied on the dormitory style lodging houses or the workhouse which towered over the slums in admonition of sickness or mental distress.

Unlike East London, which shared a similar history of poverty, immigration and lawlessness, the Church did not provide a steady line of Priests willing to tackle urban poverty, no Salvationist William Booth or, later, Bishop Huddlestone. Salford, which is a city built onto the side of Manchester City Centre, had a brief Anglo Catholic surge but the decision by the Roman Catholic Church to build their Cathedral there, effectively ten minutes walk from the centre of Manchester, seemed to knock the wind out of the sails of Deacon Andrews and his fellow trade unionists, who took the struggle to Blackpool and other deprived areas nearby. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the midst of the great Industrial money grabbing festival that some people might look out of a library window and think that all was not as well as it should be.

This was the age of liberalism, of triumphant Manchesterianism (a forgotten word!), of free trade, free enterprise and competitive individualism. Manchester is the only city I know of to erect a vast public meeting hall and name it not after a King or Saint, but after a principle, The Free Trade Hall is now a luxury hotel, which I find perfectlly fitting and loyal to its roots. Intellectually this was the era of popularised utilitarianism and religiously, of ecclesiastical commissions and evangelicalism, of the pharasaical Clapham Sect and Trollope's Mr Slope. For the sweated majority it was the time of hell, described so well in Dickens's Bleak House and Hard Times as well as by Saint-Simon and Engels.

Marx and Engels, who charted the lot of the urban poor with dignity and accuracy and who strove to find a solution, made one or two early errors which have cemented, alas, the recent history of the Soviet Union. Marx was certain that things were going to get worse for the poor, whereas from 1848 onwards, things began to improve. Their contemporaries Disraeli and (Cardinal) Newman saw that material poverty, though lamentable, was not the only poverty, that spiritual poverty had to be tacked first to enable people to work their way out of the terrible material conditions they were in. This spiritual poverty, to my mind, involves the lack of family units, for houses were shared and people were evicted continually, men and women being sent to different workhouses and the children being taken, variously, as servants, slaves or into 'care'. This, coupled with political disenfranchisement, a lack of a religious tradition which they could feel part of (apart from Roman Catholicism, which became dominant amongst the immigrant labourers, leading to unrest), a lack of education and the chance for self improvement put the labourers in a terrible, bored, hopeless condition.

Happily, before Mark and Engels could publicise their plans, which ignored all this spiritual poverty and simply kept the labouring system as it was but put the labourers at the top, (apart from the party workers, of course), they went to ruin other industrialised countries and to bring in new ways of mechanisation which never developed, based on a system which does not allow for development, either of industry or the person. Manchester, however, is still a city built and rebuilt on free trade and to the observer like myself the rise in city dwellers, from seven hundred fifteen years ago to eight hundred thousand now, living in loft apartments and converted mills, squeezed into shoebox sized apartments and working at call centres, seems as though there is another poverty to behold. Sitting in the oriel window of Chethams Library today, I can see thousands of people living on credit, shoring status up with designer clothes and kitchens, living in tiny flats which have no real financial worth and which are too small for the raising of a family. Manchesterianism has never been so well disguised, under a veneer of a newly clean city, bustling with tourism and champagne bars, but the repossession and eviction rates are, per capita, as high as they were when Engels sat in the seat I am writing to you from and the Churches are as badly attended.