Sunday, 22 November 2009


‘I’m 42 now and when I was a boy and a young man I was employed in The Times machine office, but I got into a bit of a row, a bit of a street quarrel and frolic, and was called on to pay £3, something about a street lamp; that was out of the question; and as I was taking a walk in the park, not just knowing what I’d best do, I met a recruiting sergeant and enlisted on a sudden . . .’ Thus the street-orderly, interviewed by Mayhew for his ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ published in 1851. This interview is not one of these used by poet John Seed in his ‘Pictures from Mayhew’ and ‘That Barrikins’, published by Shearsman - but it does have a certain contemporary relevance.

‘I served under General Nott all through the Afghan war’ the man tells him. ‘Why yes sir, I saw a little of what you may call ‘service’ . . . I was at the fighting at Kandahar, Bowlingglen, Bowling Pass, Clatigillsy, Ghazni and Kabul. The first real warm work I was in was at Kandahar. I’ve heard young soldiers say that they’ve gone into action the first time as merry as they would go to a play. Don’t believe them sir . . . You must feel queer and serious the first time you’re in action: it’s not fear, its nervousness. The crack of the muskets at the first fire you hear in real hard earnest is uncommon startling . . . And then you get excited, just as if you were at a hunt, but after a little service – I can speak for myself at any rate – you go into action as you go to your dinner.

I served thirteen years and four months and was then discharged on account of ill health. If I’d served eight months longer . . . I’d have been entitled to a pension. I believe my illness was caused by the hardships I went through in the campaigns, fighting and killing men that I never saw before, and until I was in India had never heard of, and that I had no ill-will to; certainly not, why should I? They never did me any wrong. But when it comes to war, if you can’t kill them they’ll kill you.’

When he came back, he tells Mayhew, he got a job at The Times again ‘but ‘I wasn’t master of the work, for there was new machinery, wonderful machinery . . . So I couldn’t be kept on.’

So now he’s in London sweeping the streets and, like sleep-walkers caught up in some dreadful cycle, a century and a half later we’re back there once again.

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