By Stephen O'Sullivan —Walked the Streets at Night and Slept in the Parks by day—got a Job in a Kitchen—then met Y.C.W.
—not much Magic in This City
IAM an Irishman. Three weeks ago I left Cork and arrived in London with it in my pocket, looking for work. Like so many of my fellow-countrymen I thought I had nothing to do but walk into a job. The legend that the streets of London are paved with gold has probably died, but there are still many Irishmen, and many Englishmen living in the provinces, to whom the word " London " has an almost magic sound, who believe that the metropolis is a city of limitless possibilities. That is why they tramp hundreds of miles to get there.
My illusions about London were quickly shattered. After paying 10s. for a room I started looking for work. A week spent in calling on Labour Exchanges and firms soon showed me that the struggle for a bare livelihood is as grim as it is elsewhere. At the end of the week l was stranded, with no money and no bed. By pawning my clothes I got enough to last me three days.
Then came my first experience of walking the London streets, tired and hungry, without a penny. On my first night out I was tempted to beg, and asked a Cockney for a penny for a cup of tea.
He knew my brogue and answered immediately, " I could spare a penny to anyone but a — Irishman."
Sleeping on Park Benches That ended my begging. I walked about until I got into conversation with another chap who took me to Trafalgar Square to the "Silver Lady." There was a van there with these words painted on it: "Silver Lady Night Café, food for the needy and homeless." I lined up in a queue of about two hundred, the majority of whom were Scotch and Irish.
To my surprise there were nine or ten young girls there, four of them Irish. l have since learned that from 50 to 70 per cent. of the girls on the streets in London are Catholics,many of them come from Ireland and the North without proper jobs, and soon become prostitutes. The Legion of Mary is doing its best to reclaim them, but it is a herculean task, and they are hampered by lack of funds.
From the "Silver Lady " van I got as much to eat and drink as I liked. and a cigarette afterwards. When I'd finished it I went to St. Pancras Station, and rested until a policeman moved me on.
I walked the rest of the night, and slept during the day in Hyde Park. I spent the next two days and nights in a similar manner. On the third day I was in Kentish Town and asked at St. Dominic's Priory for some food, and, if possible, a ticket for a bed. I was lucky at last. The Brother who answered the door put me in touch with Harry Tolfree, leader of the Young Christian Workers in England, who was just opening a House of Hospitality in Malden Road. There I found Harry, and other members of the Y.C.W., who turned out to be very fine fellows.
Getting the Sewermen Drunk I spent three weeks helping to paint and clean the house, and then got a job in a cafe owned by a catering firm.
The department in which I worked was deep down below street level. The heat
was intense. After the first hour's work I felt exhausted; although I was wearing no shirt, but only a very light singlet, sweat poured off me. We were given lunch at 10.30, but it was so hot I could not eat it. At 11 the rush of work started, when the customers came in for their lunch. We
started bringing the various foodstuffs to the lift, which was on the next floor up. This meant carrying them up and down a flight of stairs.
At about 1 o'clock I was bringing a big tray of stuff up the stairs when suddenly blood gushed from my nose. It continued to bleed for about ten minutes. This was due to working under compressed air. I dared not report it for fear they should think me in bad health and sack me.
So I stuck it out until 3, when we had tea, and began washing plates and clearing up for the following day. This ended at half-past six.
While getting ready to go home I got into conversation with the foreman, who
told me that the place was too low to have
proper sanitation. He said that there were certain men employed with horses and
carts to remove the sewage. They are always made half drunk before they start. This will give you a good idea of what that place was like, and it. is not the only place in London where boys like myself work under such conditions. It is no
wonder that you see boys walking the streets—jobs of this type are often the only ones they can get, and many of them would sooner walk the streets and starve than take them. I don't blame them.
Now I Am Happy
I stuck this for three weeks and then the doctor advised me to give it up. I did so, and Harry Tolfree obtained me a job with a friend of his, on a farm in Somerset. Now I am happy, doing the kind of work that men were meant to do. It is healthy and, if sometimes hard, always interesting. It makes demands on my imagination and skill, and there is joy in answering them.
I am in contact with natural things, daily knowing a thousand beauties that the townsman never sees. I realise my mistake, wasting months walking the streets and working in that inferno in London, while land was wasting all over Somerset and the rest of England.
I pity the factory worker, wasting his body and soul in dull and uninteresting work, for a paltry wage, and his children growing up stunted and wasted in the ugliness of the cities.
I pity the office workers and bank clerks, doomed to spend their lives riding from
the suburbs to the city to count other people's money.
I pity those who must try to rear families under such conditions—what family life can a man have who is separated all day from his children in office or factory, and who arrives home exhausted and irritable after they have gone to bed?
Bourgeois Democrats Who Scream
Above all, I pity your English unemployed—two million of them rotting and their families starving, while bourgeois democrats scream over Spanish babies.
Here in Somerset acres of fertile land are going to ruin in weed and bracken— the same thing is happening all over your country. Your agricultural workers are drifting steadily into the towns, the heart is going out of your land. Your people are becoming so weakened that the county regiments have to be recruited from Ireland, and C3 men fattened up to B2.
The suicide rate is rising rapidly, as an article in the Camorsc HERALD recently showed, while the birth-rate declines. England, which for centuries was an almost purely agricultural country, is now the most urbanised in the world. " England who was wont to conquer others bath made a shameful conquest of herself."