(This post originally distributed as – HVM Literary Notes – No.117)
H.V.Morton – Our Fellow Men
By Jim Leggett
During a flight from Miami to Curacao in 1992, colleague Mike McDonough, a former Reuters reporter, mentioned his enjoyment of HV Morton’s volumes as, from his pocket, he produced a small book.
“‘Our Fellow Men’ – it’s a potpourri, on the daily lives of tradesmen, dustmen, ploughmen, chimney sweeps, even the milkman… have you read it?” he asked.
Methuen & CO. Ltd.
36 Essex Street W.C.
First published May 7th 1936, cover art by EA Cox
I’d never heard of this title let alone read it.
Back in Florida a week or so later I stopped by Mike’s apartment in Lantana, a sleepy seaside town some sixty miles north of Miami. Over a zesty Cuban coffee and sandwiches, he thumbed the pages of his hardcover copy with its slightly faded frontispiece, otherwise in pristine condition. He told me he’d picked it up in Manchester, his UK hometown. “Time to pass it on…” he added, giving the book to me.
“Our Fellow Men” is a Pepys-style contemporary (mid 1930’s) history, insights on ordinary folk, men and women, revealing day-in-the-life-of insights from a wide variety of intriguing characters, the like of which HVM had an uncanny knack of turning up. Add Morton’s wry historical observations, Presto! – Another enchanting read. I particularly enjoy being able to delve in anywhere, picking whatever occupation takes your fancy.
* * *
London taxi drivers, circa 1936, were issued from sixty to seventy police summonses a week, for going too slowly. Not keeping up with the normal flow of traffic was an offense, arbitrary fines ranging from 2s 6d in one court to 5s at another – for the identical “crime”. Taxi drivers were paid thirty percent of the gross meter taking, or 6s from every £1 pound collected. Morton interviewed a dozen drivers, discovering their take came to “rarely more than a £2 10s or £3 pounds a week job”. They received no wage; theirs was in an uninsurable occupation, in that if he is out of work, he cannot receive unemployment benefits. In short, taxi driving at that time was not profitable.
We meet, too, George, the cinema projectionist, the man picture theatre patrons never see – the man behind the film. Working in a fireproof room known as a “box”, two projectors, a side lantern and a spotlight are under his command. Morton notes: “It is thanks to George’s skill and vigilance that Greta Garbo comes over at the right speed, and it is due entirely to George’s alacrity that the heart-throbs change swiftly and smoothly to the welcome tempo of Walt Disney’s fertile brain”.
We learn that the moving picture era began in 1824, when Peter Mark Roget lectured before the Royal Society in London on the subject of moving objects and the law of vision. Morton notes the first form of moving picture was a card with a bird painted on one side, and a cage on the other, which – when suspended from a string and rapidly revolved – gave the illusion that the bird was in the cage.
Under George’s skillful hands something like seven miles of highly flammable film flickered through the projectors in his long days work. His first duty was to see the celluloid film did not catch fire…and indeed they did. As a boy I recall fire brigade bells clanging as they raced to the Star Picture Palace in Glasgow to suppress a smoky projection “box” fire. The projectionist rarely sees the movie, “I don’t pay much attention to them! Sometimes I look at the news, especially Monday’s Cup-ties matches.” George says, closing the interview with “Well, I’ll be getting along home. I believe I am married….”.
Then there’s Bill, an insurance salesman, who knocked on some fifty doors during his morning’s round, collecting money on what his company called life insurance policies. Morton noted they are really “death policies”. The shame of a parish (pauper) funeral was so ingrained in the populace, they would forgo the smallest personal luxury to meet their meager weekly premium, their insurance man oozing charm while persuading them “You want to the right thing for dad, now don’t you? Have you got the money for his funeral? You’ve got to think about these things”.
Bill confesses that 90% of the money he so painfully screws from starvation incomes goes right into the pocket of the undertaker. In that respect not much has changed – except you have to take a second mortgage to afford a funeral today. (In irreverent determination to cheat the mortician, I’ve donated my well-travelled corpse to some medical procurement enterprise, for free):
On the lighter side Morton spoke with Jack, a newsboy. Evening newspapers, which supply London street sellers with a living, during the 1930’s sold by the “quire”, twenty-six copies, for which he paid 1s 6d. A quire, strictly speaking, is twenty-four, but the two extra copies – it used to be three – were thrown in as the seller’s profit. An 8d profit on the sale of every twenty-six copies sold. We learn of an assortment of street vendors; Sunshine Runners, who hawk papers only when there was something to sell – football results and the like; Tappers, crooks who got in touch to “tap” you, often pretending to sell papers to inebriates; Movie Men appeared to sell only one quire, earning them admission price to the pictures. Jack tells Morton he can earn £2 10s to £3 a week by selling newspapers, as long as his pitch is not invaded by pirates who swoop down from nowhere with a football edition.
* * *
In the space of 171 lively pages, thirty extraordinary ordinary Londoners are resurrected, alive once more as HVM so deliciously captured them. He divulges what they did to feed themselves and their families, reveals how many hours a day they toiled and, of paramount importance, the wages they earned.
Says Morton, “I have also the feeling that should some curious person pick this book from a penny box in the year 2036 A.D., he would be interested to know the wages of a dustman in 1936, or the money earned by a taxi-cab driver in the London of Edward V111”.
… I’ve sent my copy on to Sean Connery [see footnote], who was an Edinburgh milkman long before “shaken, not stirred” took the place of “One pint or two?”.
With best wishes,
Jim Legget, The Bahamas
In keeping with HVM’s observation on income, when last I visited with Sean Connery at his home in Lyford Cay, Bahamas, we spoke of his early job as milkman – when he had his own (employer’s) horse and cart.
On opening a weighty Volume One of “Old and New Edinburgh” by James Grant, published in 1883, Sean took amused note of a small rubber-stamp flyleaf imprint:
26, Melville Terrace
“Christ! I used to deliver milk to that address…I knew that terrace well” he declared.
In his book “Being a Scot”*, a copy of his first milkman pay slip reads;
CONNERY Thomas. S. #26246.
St, Cuthbert’s Co-Operative Dairy
His starting salary was one guinea, or twenty-one shillings (£1.05p), a week. He writes; “the horse I groomed was a Highland garron pony called Tich and I loved her dearly.”
From his modest pay packet, Sean relates how he bought Tich rosettes and chains – which looped down from each ear, “along with a martingale, or bracelet, which hung down her front.” He was so proud of Tich he entered her in the annual horse-and-cart competition for the best-dressed horse and she won a Highly Commended!
* “Being A Scot” by Sean Connery with Murray Grigor, Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2008, pp18-19