Kipps ~ The Parable of Our Times

Arriving at the industrial revolution, the barely-adult child was, in the name of simple survival, virtually given to a commercial baron as a slave.

At best benevolent, at worst greedily malevolent, the business person literally owned, in all but spirit, his charge. Times were tough, always have been, and this is just how it was, and had to be, in those days. They say.

The simple point of it? There was neither "safety net" nor constraint of "employer excesses."

And while reading this, reflect on how far the modern industrial nation has progressed while at the same time "paying for" the vast improvement in working conditions.

So the question now arises why great wealthy nations are deconstructing the framework that made them great. It’s a concerted global concerto, its workings unclear to all, the rationalizations hackneyed cliches, the mysterious, complex, driving forces (shrilly proclaimed and even more-shrilly promoted) – either sinister .. or mindless.

A revolution is afoot, and the poor end of town will be the first to fall.

In the words of H.G.Wells’ novel "Kipps" the delightfully rendered anything-but-delightful life of "apprenticeships" at the dawn of the modern state:-

The indentures that bound Kipps to Mr. Shalford were antique and complex; they insisted on the latter gentleman’s parental privileges, they forbade Kipps to dice and game, they made him over, body and soul, to Mr. Shalford for seven long years, the crucial years of his life.

In return there were vague stipulations about teaching the whole art and mystery of the trade to him, but as there was no penalty attached to negligence, Mr. Shalford being a sound, practical, business man, considered this a mere rhetorical flourish, and set himself assiduously to get as much out of Kipps and to put as little into him as he could in the seven years …

What he put into Kipps was chiefly bread and margarine, infusions of chicory and tea-dust, colonial meat by contract at threepence a pound, potatoes by the sack, and watered beer, If, however, Kipps chose to buy any supplementary material for growth, Mr. Shalford had the generosity to place his kitchen resources at his disposal free – if the fire chanced to be going.

He was also allowed to share a bedroom with eight other young men, and to sleep in a bed which, except in very severe weather, could be made, with the help of his overcoat and private underlinen, not to mention newspapers, quite sufficiently warm for any reasonable soul.

In addition, Kipps was taught the list of fines, and how to tie up parcels, to know where goods were kept in Mr. Shalford’s systematised shop, to hold his hands extended upon the counter, and to repeat such phrases as “ What can I have the pleasure-? “ “No trouble, I assure you,” and the like; to block, fold, and measure materials of all sorts, to lift his hat from his head when he passed Mr. Shalford abroad, and to practise a servile obedience to a large number of people.

The use of half the goods he saw sold and was presently to assist in selling he did not understand; materials for hangings, cretonnes, chintzes, and the like; serviettes, and all the bright, hard whitewear of a well-ordered house; pleasant dress materials, linings, stiffenings; they were to him from first to last no more than things, heavy and difficult to handle in bulk, that one folded up, unfolded, cut into lengths, and saw dwindlle and pass away out into that mysterious, happy world in which the Customer dwells.

Kipps hurried from piling linen tablecloths, that were, collectively, as heavy as lead, to eat off oil-cloth in a gas-lit dining-room underground, and he dreamt of combing endless blankets beneath his overcoat, spare undershirt, and three newspapers, so he had at least the chance of learning the beginnings of philosophy.

In return for these benefits he worked so that he commonly went to bed exhausted and footsore. His round began at half-past six in the morning, when he would descend, unwashed and shirtless, in old clothes and a scarf, and dust boxes and yawn, and take down wrappers and clean the windows until eight. Then in half an hour he would complete his toilet, and take an austere breakfast of bread and margarine and what only an Imperial Englishman would admit to be coffee, after which refreshment he ascended to the shop for the labours of the day.

Commonly these began with a mighty running to and fro with planks and boxes and goods for Carshot, the window-dresser, who, whether he worked well or ill, nagged persistently, by reason of a chronic indigestion, until the window was done. Sometimes the costume window had to be dressed, and then Kipps staggered down the whole length of the shop from the costume room with one after another of those ladylike shapes grasped firmly but shamefully each about her single ankle of wood. Such days as there was no window-dressing there was a mighty carrying and lifting of blocks and bales of goods into piles and stacks. After this there were terrible exercises, at first almost despairfully difficult; certain sorts of goods that came in folded had to be rolled upon rollers, and for the most part refused absolutely to be rolled, at any rate by Kipps; certain other sorts of goods that came from the wholesalers rolled had to be measured and folded, and folding makes young apprentices wish they were dead.

All of it, too, quite avoidable trouble, you know, that is not avoided because of the cheapness of the genteeler sorts of labour and the dearness of forethought in the world.

And then consignments of new goods had to be marked off and packed into paper parcels, and Carshot packed like conjuring tricks, and Kipps packed like a boy with tastes in some other direction – not ascertained.

There came a blessed interval when Kipps was sent abroad "matching." This consisted chiefly in supplying unexpected defects in buttons, ribbon, lining, and so forth in the dressmaking department. He was given a written paper of orders with patterns pinned thereto and discharged into the sunshine and interest of the street. Then until he thought it wise to return and stand the racket of his delay, he was a free man, clear of all reproach.

At half-past seven o’clock – except on late nights – a feverish activity of straightening "up" began, and when the last shutter was up outside, Kipps, with the speed of an arrow leaving a bow, would start hanging wrappers over the fixtures and over the piles of wares upon the counters, preparatory to a vigorous scattering of wet sawdust and the sweeping out of the shop.

Sometimes people would stay long after the shop was closed. "They don’t mind a bit at Shalford’s," these ladies used to say, and while they loitered it was forbidden to touch a wrapper or take any measures to conclude the day until the doors closed behind them. Mr. Kipps would watch these later customers from the shadow of a stack of goods, and death and disfigurement was the least he wished for them.

Rarely much later than nine, a supper of bread and cheese and watered beer awaited him downstairs, and, that consumed, the rest of the day was entirely at his disposal for reading, recreation, and the improvement of his mind.

The front door was locked at half-past ten, and the gas (light) in the dormitory extinguished at eleven.

H.G.Wells was more than a brilliant novelist; he was an intellectual giant of his age, collaborating with Huxley in ‘The Science of Life,’ as historian "An Outline of History" and "A Short History of the World," and generally a man of letters and acerbic, incisive social and scientific commentator of those grand times. 
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