Friday, January 07, 2011

Plus ca change ?

This post has been croos-posted at Harry's Place

I'm a great fan of the Victorian novelist George Gissing ("the English Zola") and one of George Orwell's favourites. Many of his books are out of print but thanks to Project Gutenberg all can now read his collected works on-line.

Reading "The Crown of Life" (a lesser known work from 1899) just now, I came across this striking passage about the City of London which might be worth quoting in this time of banker and bonus bashing :
He did not love her less; she was the same power in his life. This sinking of the heart, this menace of gloom and rebellion, was treachery to his better self. He fought manfully against it.
Circumstances were unfavourable to such a struggle. Work, absorption in the day's duty, well and good; but when work and duty led one into the City of London! At first, he had found excitement in the starting of his business; so much had to be done, so many points to be debated and decided, so many people to be seen and conversed with, contended with; it was all an exhilarating effort of mind and body. He felt the joy of combat; sped to the City like any other man, intent on holding his own amid the furious welter, seeing a delight in the computation of his chances; at once a fighter and a gambler, like those with whom he rubbed shoulders in the roaring ways. He overtaxed his energy, and in any case there must have come reaction. It came with violence soon after that day at Malvern.
The weather was hot; one should have been far away from these huge rampart-streets, these stifling burrows of commerce. But here toil and stress went on as usual, and Piers Otway saw it all in a lurid light. These towering edifices with inscriptions numberless, announcing every imaginable form of trade with every corner of the world; here a vast building, consecrate in all its commercial magnificence, great windows and haughty doorways, the gleam of gilding and of brass, the lustre of polished woods, to a single company or firm; here a huge structure which housed on its many floors a crowd of enterprises, names by the score signalled at the foot of the gaping staircase; arrogant suggestions of triumph side by side with desperate beginnings; titles of world-wide significance meeting the eye at every turn, vulgar names with more weight than those of princes, words in small lettering which ruled the fate of millions of men;—no nightmare was ever so crushing to one in Otway's mood. The brute force of money; the negation of the individual—these, the evils of our time, found there supreme expression in the City of London. Here was opulence at home and superb; here must poverty lurk and shrink, feeling itself alive only on sufferance; the din of highway and byway was a voice of blustering conquest, bidding the weaker to stand aside or be crushed. Here no man was a human being, but each merely a portion of an inconceivably complicated mechanism. The shiny-hatted figure who rushed or sauntered, gloomed by himself at corners or made one of a talking group, might elsewhere be found a reasonable and kindly person, with traits, peculiarities; here one could see in him nothing but a money-maker of this or that class, ground to a certain pattern. The smooth working of the huge machine made it only the more sinister; one had but to remember what cold tyranny, what elaborate fraud, were served by its manifold ingenuities, only to think of the cries of anguish stifled by its monotonous roar.
Looks like the evils of the City of London, like the poor, have always been with us.

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