Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Man Alone

Chapter VI

page 51

Chapter VI

Going in on the lorry to the meeting, Johnson began to be sorry that he had promised to come. In the halflight after sunset the air was cold and as the lorry swayed round corners he hunched his coat up over his ears and tried not to listen to the Cockney, Roach, who talked endlessly, volubly. They had had an argument in the tent before they started, when Robertson refused to come. Sitting on the edge of his bunk he had watched them get ready.

‘The demonstrator-rs,’ he said ironically, and Roach turned to him bustling and eager.

‘You'd better come, Mac,’ he had said, his little eyes full of excitement, his voice squeaking indignantly. ‘This'll be the best thing we've done. They'll see they can't treat us like dirt, they will.’

‘That's what ye are,’ Robertson said, rolling a cigarette. He ran his eye over Roach with melancholy humour. ‘That's all ye are. Just dirt.’

And Johnson had smiled, bending over the tent's one mirror to do his hair.

‘You ought to come, Mac,’ he said, not turning round. ‘This is your chance to do something. You wanted something done.’

‘I never marched in a procession yet, man. I don't intend it now.’

Roach spoke up again.

‘We've got to hold together, mate,’ he said.

‘That's right.’ It was Scotty. He wasn't feeling well. He stood thin and ill by the tent door, dressed in his only suit, ready to go.

page 52

‘You oughtn't to go, Scotty,’ Johnson said. ‘You'd best turn in,’ but he grinned, shaking his head.

‘I don't hold together,’ Robertson said. ‘I'm too old for that. And as for you, Roach, I'll be sleeping quietly here while they're breaking your head open.’

‘There'll be no head-breaking.’

‘Ay, there'll be head-br-reaking, all right. There's police in there waiting for every one of ye.’

‘It's a free country,’ Roach said. ‘We've a right to march in the streets.’

‘It's no sae free.’

‘We've a right to march in the streets to show the crying shame of what they've done to us, the way they're treating us.’

Robertson finished rolling his cigarette and licked the gummed edge carefully.

‘It's a fine, free country,’ he said. ‘Ye couldn't get a job so ye took relief. Now they cut your pay, so ye have a processi-on. Verra fine. Verra fine, na doubt. What d'ye think ye're getting, Roach man, walking the streets? Is it Douglas credit? Is it socialism. It is not. Ye'll get a thick head and no sleep and be back at work to-morrow two chains up the road with yer feet in the clay.’

Johnson remembering this agreed with Robertson as they made the journey in. The men about him were half interested, looking for a night in town, a little excitement, a chance to walk the streets. They were angry about the way their wages had been cut, their ‘starvation rates’ of pay. They were angry, but they did not yet really care. The men who really cared were the married men and they for the most part had stayed in camp. Johnson himself had not stayed in camp, but he did not care.

They got off the lorry by the wharves west of the town and formed up to march to the post office. The organisers page 53 from their camp had a banner, an old sheet, and daubed on it in black ink the slogan, ‘West River Unemployed Camp. More pay. Real Work. No Slave Camps. Two men marched at the head carrying this and Johnson fell in behind, keeping on the inside. The arrangement was that they should join with a procession of post and telegraph workers and march with them through the town to the town hall. No one from Johnson's camp had very clear ideas as to what would happen then. They fell into line and marched off along the water-front.

In the crowded space before the post office it became clear that the meeting and the procession had some meaning, at least in the numbers of people that it had drawn together. The streets were thick with people and the pavements lined. Trams had stopped running and there was no traffic going through. The head of the procession had already started on its way through the main street to the town hall. The West River contingent fought their way through the crowds to the centre of the square and joined the marchers, who were more than four abreast; they filled the street as they went forward. The West River standard disappeared to reappear again a few yards ahead of them. Johnson found himself with Roach and Scotty and some others, going slowly forward up the street.

In the grimness and tenseness of that mass of men a new spirit came over them. It was a very silent procession that marched, without bands or songs or shouting. Johnson going with them felt this change. He lost the sense of waste and frustration that had been with him. Instead he felt that he had a part in something. What it was he could not have said, but only that he was with men who shared his lack of fortune, who were the same as he was and had the same purpose; that they were going forward together, where, he could not say, but only that they were going page 54 somewhere and would be together. The same feeling had changed even Roach who marched beside him so that he no longer talked and joked and grumbled, but marched silently with his head up looking forward, and Scotty was no longer ill, but well-looking.

The onlookers who filled the pavements were silent, too, while they went by. At street corners, and here and there along the route, there seemed to be a great many policemen, occasionally mounted, their horses turning restlessly. When the marchers came to the open space by the town hall, the advance guard of post and telegraph workers had gone inside. The unemployed who followed them were being held up at the door. As more and more marching men pressed up behind them, the square became packed, and the silence that had been with them seemed to break ominously. There was a kind of murmured shouting and excitement that ran down the street and through the watching crowds as if they felt, not that anything was happening, but that something must. After the march, which had been a beginning, to be held in check like this made men angry: they shared between them an anger that was overwhelming.

Johnson fighting for a place in this press saw a mounted policeman on a great white horse trying to hold his ground at the head of the street. Not far from him, in the centre of the crowd where the street lamps were shining, he could see a man addressing the unemployed marchers, held up on their shoulders, his cap pulled up and waving in the air, the light shining on his sweating face. Johnson could see him, his mouth moving and his face working but could not hear what he said. The crowd moved round and round him like a broken tide-rip. Sometimes Johnson was carried in with it and at others thrown back again. There was no longer for him any moving where he wanted to page 55 go but only where everyone else was going, and there was still the feeling that it would be somewhere and that everyone would go.

The whole picture stayed like that for several minutes. Some men were still going into the hall, but the police were holding the unemployed back and the little man held up on their shoulders was still talking. Then two policemen went in towards him to try and stop him and there was a surge just as if the wave had spilled over and was rolling up the shore. Johnson saw a baton go up and an arm raised and the little man go down with a blow on the side of the head, and then at once men seemed to know where they were going. He was knocked aside and lost Roach and Scotty and the others that he knew. It was a wild business, like a dream in which no one seemed real any longer. Across the road men were stripping palings from the fence of a church to fight with and from the side streets they were gathering stones. The white horse of the mounted policeman reared up as it was struck, unseating him so that he fell in to the mob and was lost to sight. Johnson saw the police go back or down; two that were near him were driven back and one fell against a shop wall, hit with a stone that drew blood. Men were left where they fell and stopped fighting. Violence was new to these people so that they wanted results and not mob murder, but Johnson saw a woman kick someone as he fell, screaming in her anger all the time, and a man near him, his face all running with blood, shouting: ‘Get them–get them.’ He saw one of the police, red-faced and angry, driving in at a man who collapsed in front of him, while somebody else tried to catch the policeman's arm.

After that the shop-windows began to go, first with stones and then with a long rake of the fence palings. The fight turned from the hall, no longer a fight, and the men page 56 who led it went back down the main street with their palings. They had tried to enter the hall and had been stopped. Now they no longer wanted to go inside. They were outside in the streets and had won their fight and were free from restraint. They were the swift runners and the leaders who went first and broke everything they saw without caring. To them it was the releasing of accumulated desire, a payment for the long weeks and months of monotony and weariness and poverty and anxiety that could be satisfied like this in a few moments of freedom and destruction.

Johnson went with them to the sound of glass breaking and women shrieking until he came to like it; past two men breaking a bottle of gin snatched from a hotel window over a lamp-post as they fought for it, and a woman stumbling back with her hand to her head; falling over a man who lay half on the pavement and half on the road saying ‘Christ, Christ,’ to himself, and then swearing, too, because he had to say something; turning to see whether he could stop and know what was happening and then being driven forward again, knowing that it no longer mattered what happened while the whole street moved forward with him; until suddenly it ended because the street ended. If the street had never ended, if it had gone on, instead of ending in the sea-front as it did, it seemed to Johnson as if he would still be moving with them and the plate glass would be still falling as they went. At the end of the street the wave spent itself and recoiled.

Turning back up the street they could see for the first time the damage that had been done. Shop windows were gone down both sides and the street that had been filled with marchers and onlookers was now broken into small groups of fighting, gesticulating people. What followed after the first rush was, by comparison, small and dirty.

page 57

Those who fought by the windows for what they could take were not the real fighters, but the scavengers, not the front line, but the trailings and conscripts. Johnson, coming back up the street and feeling again a single man who could see and judge things for himself, saw a little jeweller who must have lived above his shop and come down to protect it, driven in by women who cursed him as they beat at him. His small, kind, Jewish little face was sweating and fearful. Then Johnson was wedged by an arcade entrance where a great gaunt man reached into a window for armfuls of cigarettes which he threw to the crowd, shouting and laughing as he did it. The man was drunk with excitement, blood streaming from a cut over his eye. Then, when he could not reach enough, he broke more glass and got inside the window and shovelled cigarettes out with his feet so that boxes and packets spilled out on to the pavement before anyone could catch them and a little bent woman, trying feverishly to gather them up, was knocked forward so that her head came on to the jagged glass and she fell face downwards with a cry that was lost in the shouting and raving of the big man inside the window.

The movement of men with him swung Johnson away from there and up the street again. It was curious to him at this moment, as the crowd rushed from place to place, to feel himself coming back again and to know what he himself was doing. He could see the same feeling grow on men's faces as they looked at one another, and wondered suddenly who was watching them at what they did, and knew that they themselves as single men were breaking and looting and no longer all together. It was going to become important soon for them to look after themselves and then the street would begin to clear.

In one of the last rushes before this happened Johnson, page 58 pressed into a throng near the top of the street, saw that it was not loot that had brought this shouting, hooting mob of men and women together, but an attempt at an arrest. The police were re-forming and working from the head of the street down, as in a battle, to retake it. A police sergeant, who must have arrived late with reinforcements, for he was untouched, and a plain-clothes detective held one man in a shop doorway, and round them, like baying dogs who would nevertheless not come within striking distance, pressed the crowd. They were not yet willing for the return of everyday law and order and for the taking of one of their number like this. The prisoner behind in the grip of the sergeant struggled to get free and, as Johnson watched, the sergeant raised his fist and bringing it short round in a half-arm blow struck the man on the side of his face so that he stood half-dazed and would have fallen had he not been held up by the grip on his collar. He dropped forward and Johnson saw then that it was Scotty.

As Johnson pressed into the crowd struggling towards the doorway, there was a new shout from them in anger at the blow and a new surge forward. But it stopped with the detective in front of the sergeant and his prisoner, and one hand in his pocket, shouting ‘Stand back or I'll shoot.’ The crowd dropped back again uneasily so that Johnson, still pushing his way forward, came in front facing the detective. Johnson was angry now. He was angered by the brutal blow he had seen, in all that evening's brutality, and angered, too, to think that of the few who would be picked out and punished for all that night's work, one of them must be Scotty, the small, the stupid, at heart the inoffensive.

A woman screamed hoarsely beside him: ‘They don't carry guns,’ and hoping this might be so, not really caring, page 59 he went in. The detective's hand came out of his pocket, clenched, and without a gun. Johnson going in towards Scotty went past the blow that came at him, but tripped as the detective's foot shot out and half fell. The same rush carried him to the sergeant who had his back half turned holding Scotty. Johnson drove one fist into the small of the sergeant's back, the other going high swung catching him on the side of his face.

In the red, angry face that turned to meet Johnson's attack, looking down at him, for the sergeant was a big man and heavily built, the main emotion was incredulity and surprise that anyone could hit him. It must have been a long time since anyone had hit this officer. His left hand still held Scotty by the collar. As he swung round Scotty was pulled between them and flung against the other side of the doorway. The sergeant's right hand coming low drove into Johnson, winding him. The sergeant dropped Scotty, who fell half forward and then was held by the crowd, and the sergeant with his face pressed close to Johnson hit with both fists into his body again; and Johnson, feeling behind him a blow from the detective that only grazed the side of his head, struck upwards and hit the sergeant below his chin. There was no longer surprise in the sergeant's face, but only anger, and as they stood, jammed now with the press as the crowd closed in, their faces almost touching so that for the moment neither of them could move, he said to Johnson: ‘I'll get you for this.’

Then the crowd, pressing and shrieking, swung them together out of the doorway. Scotty disappeared. In the mêlée of the pavement the sergeant still had one arm holding Johnson by the right shoulder of his coat and, as Johnson tugged to pull away, the sergeant's fist came over in a last blow that caught him just above his eyes and page 60 knocked him back into the crowd on the street. Then the sergeant was back again against the wall, his helmet gone, his lip bleeding, waiting for what would happen while the crowd turned away down the street.

There was a new movement downwards again, driven by the pressure of new forces at the top, and the streets at the head were beginning to clear. The stream turned again towards the sea-front and Johnson went with it, half-dazed, shambling where before he had run, his breath gone, his stomach sick, and blood from the blow over his left eye running down his face. The rush of men and women, feeling fears of arrest for the first time, some of them stopping to snatch from windows as they went, but the main body going down the centre of the street, carried him with it until at last he came to the dark and comparative peace of the deserted wharf-head, and there he clung to the iron railings to support himself and was violently sick.