Wednesday 22 May 2024

Red Rust

As I pointed out in the previous post, Only Connect!, the house named Howards End at the centre of E.M. Forster's novel of the same name (I am allergic to the word "eponymous") is modelled on Rooks Nest, Forster's childhood home. Which happened to be more or less in Stevenage, which happens to be my own home town, albeit in its post-war New Town version, an urban expansion Forster and many other "old town" residents had tried, unsuccessfully, to strangle at birth.  

So here's an interesting little exchange from Forster's novel:

“All the same, London’s creeping.”

She pointed over the meadow—over eight or nine meadows, but at the end of them was a red rust.

“You see that in Surrey and even Hampshire now,” she continued. “I can see it from the Purbeck Downs. And London is only part of something else, I’m afraid. Life’s going to be melted down, all over the world.”

Margaret knew that her sister spoke truly. Howards End, Oniton, the Purbeck Downs, the Oderberge, were all survivals, and the melting-pot was being prepared for them.

E.M. Forster, Howards End, 1910
That "red rust", of course, was not the New Town, which began construction in 1949, but just a little bit of new housing of the sort you might have seen then on the periphery of many places like Stevenage, as well as the beginnings of the Garden City of Letchworth, a forerunner of the New Towns that would become a substantial patch of "red rust" a couple of miles in the other direction across the meadows from Rooks Nest. The building of such new housing intensified in the years "between the wars", with the result that many of us in Britain today are still living in suburban streets populated by the typical semi-detached houses built in the 1930s.

The inhabitants of those first new houses in Stevenage – mostly local working- and lower-middle class families of long standing – would in time be encouraged by the resident gentry to oppose the construction of a New Town for outsiders from London, which a lot of them did. Just as some of the New Town residents who had bought their former council properties in the 1980s would be persuaded by NIMBY activists a few decades later to protest against any further expansion into the factitious, bucolic mirage of "Forster Country". I know, Don't it always seem to go, etc.?  Joni Mitchell had a point, obviously, but the reactionary element in "hippie" attitudes tends to go unremarked, and I'm glad she didn't live anywhere near North Hertfordshire. People need somewhere to live.

As a grateful product of that post-war melting-pot myself, it is enlightening to eavesdrop on the private thoughts of conflicted Edwardian writers like Forster – torn between their progressive ideals and their fears for the survival of the comfortable world they had inherited – whether as recorded in their published diaries or expressed through their sock-puppet fictional proxies. Thanks to Merchant Ivory films and numerous other costume-drama adaptations of their novels, it is still surprisingly easy to enter, imaginatively, into that world of the Edwardian "long summer", still unperturbed by the horrors to come in the 20th century. But it was clearly already an anxious time, and not entirely the soft-focus utopia of Sunday-evening TV. Even the moderately wealthy could enjoy lives insulated from the majority population – who seem to have been regarded as an uncouth but essential natural resource that provided income, food, servants, labourers, and clerks – but the prospect of any little progress for the many seemed, rather hysterically, to threaten a complete breakdown of society, a melt-down of "life" even, for the fortunate few.

For those servants, labourers, and clerks, though, you could safely say that things could only get better. Here, for example, is a page from the 1906 Poor Law Union book for the North Herts market town of Baldock – just a couple of miles across the fields and meadows from Rooks Nest – which records the assistance given to the paupers of the parish. There, at the top of the page, are my great-grandmother Mary Ann Mabbitt, a 49-year-old charwoman, my grandmother Daisy, aged 12, and her younger brother Henry, receiving 3 shillings and sixpence "weekly relief". Four older children had already left home, two of them girls not much older than Daisy and living "in service" on a nearby farm.

Mary Ann had not had a lot of luck in life. She had been disfigured in a domestic fire, but married an older man of 36 in 1882 – a soldier turned farm labourer – who gave her six children in quick succession and then promptly died at age 50. The stigma of living "on the parish" was considerable, and must have left its mark. Nonetheless, according to my father Granny Mabbitt was a sweet, kind, and generous woman, with a knack for home-brewing (the two are not necessarily connected).

She lived to be 80 and shared a household for many years in the new Garden City of Letchworth with another of her daughters, Alice, who had been abandoned by her husband and left to bring up their single child alone. Mabbitt women were survivors, though, and between the two of them I imagine they were pretty much immune to any amount of contempt, condescension, small-minded gossip, or scandal. Again, according to my father – who as a boy lived in the same Letchworth street – his Aunt Alice was a good-humoured, life-affirming woman. In fact, in 1941 at age 56 she married for a second time, to a younger man of 39; a bricklayer, no less. The marriage certificate shows that they were both already living at that same address in Letchworth. Let 'em talk!

They were an interesting bunch, those Mabbitts, especially compared to the rather stiff-necked Scottish contribution to my genetic makeup. Daisy's older sister Florence, for example, frequently wore trousers (unusual in those days) and sold coal in the winter and ice in the summer from a pit in her back garden. Daisy herself worked as a bookbinder at J.M. Dent's Temple Press, and was Mother of the Chapel there (i.e. the senior female trade union shop steward). Needless to say, I am proud to carry whatever share of those resilient, kind, and (dare I say) mildly eccentric Mabbitt genes I may have inherited, and hope to have passed on: in the end, it's really the only connection that matters.

Resilient, kind (and mildly eccentric?)

Mildly eccentric (and resilient, kind?)

Resilient, kind (and mildly eccentric?). Only connect...

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