‘The Road thru’ Letchworth Gate’ came to be written, partly in association with the George Orwell festival and as an exercise for September’s meeting of the Letchworth Writers Group. The group has been established over some twenty plus years and its aim is to provide an outlet for the aspiring writer and also critical encouragement for and by members.
It was some of Orwell’s lesser works, i.e. Burmese Days; Down & Out In London & Paris; 1984 and the Road To Wigan Pier (the latter suggesting a title for the piece and from which all else flowed) which provided a background for the tongue-in-cheek exercise, a hypothetical situation which may have brought Eric Blair to Letchworth. It is hoped that were George Orwell still alive today he would accept the author’s intention of acknowledging Orwell’s contribution to world of literature.
The Road Thru’ Letchworth Gate.
The shriek of the guard’s whistle added wings to my feet as I ran to catch the train, swerving around the undecided, still crowding the Euston platform. With eyes smarting from the smoke and steam from the engine, fussing impatiently at the head of the train, I searched desperately for an unoccupied third class compartment. I found one, thankfully flinging my bag in and tumbling after it.
The train jolted into motion which was when, searching for my cigarettes, I realised I was not alone. A cough from the far corner revealed a short, broad shouldered man whom I would guess to be in his mid-forties. He was tapping at a ‘No Smoking’ sign on the window. I looked around desperately. There was no communicating corridor on this section of the train and now I was regretting my decision to travel ‘Third Class’ on the grounds of economy. After all, the editor always allowed for ‘First Class’ in my expenses! The man, working class but with an element of success in his style of dress; suit, waistcoat, collar and tie though the collar was soft and the cuffs only buttoned, had returned to his newspaper. I would try an appeal for him to turn a blind eye to the regulations.
‘I say, old chap, there are only the two of us here so would you mind awfully if I had a smoke?’ Putting down his paper again (I couldn’t help noticing it was ‘The Times’) he turned, replying with a smile.
‘Not at all – if you don’t mind dropping your window down.’ He winked, pointing at the door beside me. I inwardly blanched at the thought of travelling all the way to Birmingham in a fifty mile an hour gale of smoke and steam. The idea didn’t appeal, even to one desperate for a smoke and I concealed my seething resentment with a faint smile of contrition. My own middle-lower upper class status was now at loggerheads with my socialist beliefs. Impudent fellow, quoting Railway Regulations to me! Me, a one time officer of the Empire. All the while my socialist conscience jeered at my discomfort, reminding me of the equality I have argued for on behalf of the lower orders, that is the working classes. Those arguments ceased as the fellow rose and, moving easily on the balls of his feet against the motion of the carriage, crossed to sit opposite me.
He was about five foot six short compared to my six foot three but quelled my umbrage with his opening address. His voice was friendly, its accent honed on the streets of North London but tempered by an education of sorts. Not, I hoped, the more or less rote learning adopted in ever increasing numbers by Trade Unionists and ardent supporters of the Left, whose oratory, fired by fervent socialist or even communist ideals, parroted well worn mantras to the point of boredom. My fears were un-founded.
‘Took a dose of gas in the last war and smoking sets my cough going, which is why I chose non-smoking. I sympathise with you as I had a habit once; the gas attack paid put to that.’ He offered his hand, adding by way of introduction: ‘Tom O’Brien. I’m only going to Watford so you can change carriages there to get your smoke’ I took his hand, impressed by the strength in the firm grip, the calloused hands obviously those of a manual worker. My sub-conscious was expressing relief at Tom’s odour of carbolic soap for, as we know, hygiene is not a strong point, or considered absolutely necessary, by the working class masses. I felt more re-assured.
‘Blair, Eric Blair, and thank you Tom, I do appreciate your reasons and apologise for presuming on your comfort.’ Tom sat back, warmth in the friendly blue eyed gaze, his voice edged with curiosity:
‘For my part Eric, judging by your voice and dress, you are a gentleman and not one I would suppose would be travelling Third Class.’ The courteous manner in which he addressed me demanded a social interchange and our conversation began. I explained I was employed on a free lance basis as an investigative journalist (I could have said reporter but that may have implied I was a newspaper’s lackey!) and, with a wide ranging remit, was travelling North, to investigate the living and working conditions of the British working classes. Which was when Tom, with a suspicion of a smile, interjected:
‘You mean how the bare foot starving masses live?’
‘Well’ I stammered, ‘I don’t know about starving but from what I’ve seen around London . . .’ I waved at the passing soot stained, terraced houses, framed momentarily in the window,
‘. . . with its squalid tenements, poor wages and greedy landlords, there has to be room for improvement.’
‘Oh, I agree but such improvements need money, which will increase rents. Wages would have to rise thereby increasing employers costs. One way to reduce those costs would be by cutting back on employment and so a vicious circle would begin. I can argue from both sides as I was born in a Paddington Peabody tenement, supposedly a shining example of advanced living for the working class. Except we, a family of six, shared a communal sink and water supply on a landing while the one toilet, used by the other fourteen families, was down three floors in the backyard.’
He went on to explain how, at twelve year’s of age, he started work as a bricklayer’s apprentice and had just finished his indentured time when he was called up for the War. Like most who survived that horror, especially when talking to the uninitiated, he skirted over his wartime experiences, suffice to say that demobilisation found him determined to improve his lot. Marrying in 1919, the need to provide for a growing family accelerated that determination which is why now, in 1933, he was running a small gang of labourers and bricklayers on building contracts around the country. At Watford he’d be collecting the regulars of his workforce, together with his lorry and travelling on to Baldock in Hertfordshire where they were building a small industrial estate.
He paused, obviously considering something which, when he continued, was an offer, an unusual but nevertheless intriguing proposal.
‘You say you’re on a fairly free itinerary and are interested in the improvement of the working classes?’ I nodded. ‘Have you ever been to Welwyn Garden City?’ I shook my head. ‘How about Letchworth, the First Garden City?’ I had heard of the Letchworth Garden City concept and read a little about it, dismissing it as a scheme not so much to set the masses free but entrap them in a working environment dominated by the platitudes of a religious mantra. Again I shook my head.
‘It might prove interesting to judge for yourself whether the Garden City is the way forward in improving the lives of the working man. Our contract’s in nearby Baldock and I can give you a lift along the Great North Road to the crossroads for Letchworth. Overnight lodging should be easy but if not, Baldock has a number of inns. How about it?’ The idea appealed. I have always been one to change direction towards the un-expected and so agreed.
Our conversation continued amicably, a natural progress for two men from the opposite sides of the social spectrum, curious of the other. The slowing of the train halted our discussion as we approached the outskirts of Watford. I looked down the embankment at the rows of grimy terraces all with their brick outhouses and almost compulsory lines of grim, grey and faded washing, now washed again by the smoke from the train. I shuddered, for the diminutive shapes moving along the streets reminded me of the black beetles I encountered in Burma, scurrying, clicking and cracking like egg shells when crushed underfoot.
The train stopped and Tom dropped lightly to the platform, his only luggage an old, well filled, faded Army knapsack. Stretching out a hand out to take my small case with a perfunctory ‘Follow me’ he strode off towards the station exit. The station yard was crowded but six fellows whom I at first took for loafers proved to be Tom’s men. They gathered around him, their voices raised in friendly but respectful banter, glancing curiously at me and falling silent until Tom explained my presence, at which their conversations resumed. There was though, none of the blasphemy usually associated with such robust muscular building workers, which is when I discovered something else about Tom, he abhorred foul language. I would have added violence except for the incident which followed.
Swinging their bags and toolkits, the seven men, with me trailing behind feeling, for obvious reasons, somewhat out of place, headed across the station forecourt, then came to an abrupt halt. Tom’s small lorry, open except for a small canvas awning behind the cab, was standing on the far side and was the attention of five young men whom I would describe as ruffians but the muttered ‘wastrels’ and ‘hobblydois’ from Tom’s men, accompanied by adjectival expletives in voices low enough to escape Tom’s hearing said otherwise. They were kicking a leather football against the truck, giving whoops of profane exuberance as the ball struck the metalwork. Tom, staying us with a wave of his hand, dropped his bag and walked unassumingly across to the youths. Stopping little way from them, his voice loud, clear and, if they only realised, with an icy intent, urged:
‘Oi! Clear off.’
As one they turned and, not noticing the rest of us, grinned at the approach of their new prey.
The biggest, obviously their leader, replied
‘An’ wots it to you, granddad?’ As he spoke, the one with the foot ball kicked it forcefully at Tom. To theirs, and also to my amazement, Tom gave an energetic jump, trapped the ball and with a swift right foot drove it back at its sender, hitting him hard and square in the face. He yelled and collapsed, clutching a bloodied nose, while Tom resumed his advance. Their leader started towards Tom, his swagger now a little diminished, particularly when looking back he saw his companions shuffling rearward. Trying to maintain his initial bravado, he continued towards Tom, his confidence probably bolstered by Tom being some three inches shorter. The fellow, raising his hands in gesture of fisticuffs, flailed at Tom who, changing direction, sidestepped, kicking the fellow’s feet from under him and, as he was falling, struck him with the flat of a large, hardened hand. We onlookers heard the crack, saw the gangling youth go down howling before crawling away to flee after his companions.
Calling out ‘Everyone aboard.’ Tom turned, gripping my arm as I went to pass.
‘Eric, you’ll be in the back with the lads. I’m up front with Charlie, the driver. They’re a good bunch and enjoy a chat,’ and he grinned. ‘Oh and they also enjoy a smoke as well.’
He was right. The journey that followed took about two hours and, following an exchange of Woodbines and Senior Service, they regaled me with stories of the various sites they’d worked on with Tom and I in turn related some of my Burmese adventures.
It was an enjoyable journey, made more so by my fellow travellers for I was accepted as just another worker, the difference in our social class seeming not to matter. No one was trying to score points of the other and our conversation stayed on familiar ground; football, cricket and racing, although here I knew little about ‘The Dogs’ or greyhound racing, only venturing an opinion on the Grand National. Occasionally, I glanced out of the canvas shelter, noticing that after passing St.Albans, pastures rather than houses lined the road we were rumbling along. Len, bricklayer and one of the older men, yelled over the noise of the motor
‘Can’t stand all this green stuff meself, Mr Eric. Never feel at ’ome out ‘ere and I’m always glad to get back to the ’Smoke.’ ‘Ow about yerself? I could sympathise with him. You could always find shelter, some warmth and something to eat just walking around London. Green fields could be very cold, very wet and you soon tire of eating raw turnips. The journey continued, passing the crossroad to Old and the new Welwyn, the Lytton Estates at Knebworth then, a little way past the little hamlet of Stevenage, the lorry rattled to a halt. I heard the cab door slam and Tom’s cheery face appeared above the truck’s sides.
‘Here you are Eric, Letchworth Garden City.’ Dropping my bag onto the ground, I lowered myself over the side of the lorry and looked around, puzzled. We were standing on a grass verge and true, a sign declared we were at Letchworth Garden City – but where was it? As far as I could see, everywhere was green, a green of fields and woods seeming to stretch to the horizon. Seeing my puzzled expression, Tom with a now familiar laugh, took my bag and strode up the road while I tried to keep up with him. At the top of the small rise I could see the road veered to the left and there, in the distance, were buildings latticed with wooden scaffolding, for all the world like some land-locked marina.
‘Is that Letchworth, Tom? Is that the way I go?
‘Not quite Letchworth, Eric, but it is the road through Letchworth Gate.’
His words, even then, struck a chord with me and long afterwards would echo in my mind.
‘. . . oh and Eric . . .’ he paused
‘If you can’t get a drink in Letchworth, me and the lads are at the George and Dragon most nights’ and chuckling, Tom returned to his lorry. I watched the vehicle disappear in the direction of Baldock wondering what he found so funny in his last remark.